Loans put a burden on DePaul students

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Emily Becker reviews notes from her Jumpstart meeting. The DePaul student is covering all the costs of her education. (Andrew Morrell / The DePaulia)

Emily Becker reviews notes from her Jumpstart meeting. The DePaul student is covering all the costs of her education. (Andrew Morrell / The DePaulia)

Around 6:40 a.m. on May 8, 2012, America reached a milestone that few talked about, and even fewer celebrated. It was at that exact moment, according to estimates by finaid.org, when outstanding student loan debt in America reached $1 trillion. Today, that estimate stands at over $1.2 trillion — higher than outstanding credit card or auto loan debt, and likely higher than combined student debt all over the world. The majority of that debt, as much as 43 percent of it, is carried by people younger than 25 years old, according to a Pew Research poll.

This age cohort comprises most of what has become the latest and most talked about generational buzzword: Millennials. Like every demographic classifier that has come before it, the definition of a Millennial is ambiguous and largely up to interpretation. Neil Howe and William Strauss, the academic duo who initially coined the term, said it applies to anyone born between 1982 and 2004. And with the forging of a new socio-demographic market group came the requisite generalizations in the media.

Going by the assumptions posited by a number of experts, professionals, older than 40 with an internet connection, the typical Millennial is “overoptimistic,” “only takes ‘yes’ for an answer,” had “childhoods full of trophies and adulation,” is “totally incoherent,” “materialistic,” and most frighteningly, “entitled.”

This less-than-endearing narrative persists despite a decidedly bleak outlook, especially for the youngest Millennials. Unemployment for 20- to 24-year-olds stands at 10.5 percent, nearly twice the national average of 5.8 percent. Factor that into data that shows a steep decline in wages for Millennials during and since the recession, and one could reasonably make the argument that this is the first generation in nearly a century that will be worse off than their parents.

Growing up in a time of global economic and political upheaval, it’s clear that Millennials didn’t choose this situation for themselves any more than they chose to live with their parents after college. Every generation has its fair share of slackers and overachievers, but the majority will do their best to live comfortably and within their means. Seemingly absent from the discussion of the absent-minded 20-something are the stories of those who defy their ancestor’s appointed stereotypes, who work hard to get by in a world that has not only stacked the odds against them, but also piled plenty of blame on their backs. It’s worth wondering whether these people are just exceptions, or just a few examples of a truly exceptional generation, one entitled to something more than critical think pieces.

The end of each day for Emily Becker, a caretaker for the Jumpstart after-school program at the Erie House, is heralded with snacks. In a ritual that the 4, 5 and 6-year-olds she teaches would be envious of, Becker and her co-workers sit around a table adorned with Lay’s potato chips, chunky Chips-Ahoy and cherry Kool-Aid, the kind in the plastic bottles that snap open with an eagle-shaped pull tab.

“I haven’t had one of these since I was 7!” Becker said. It was her birthday, and this spread of treats was a welcome surprise.

The discussion that followed concerned the children each of them work with, how they are progressing in their reading and writing, how well they play with one another or with their caretaker, and any problems or amusing events that transpired.

Much of this concerned the latter. The group talked at length about one child who had been known as something of a troublemaker, but today demonstrated a new skill he learned — meditation. This was a 4-year-old who not only was able to control his temper (a rare feat at such an age), but also knew the word “meditation” and its basic process (sitting cross-legged on the floor, with eyes closed and palms together).

“So much of our imagination is lost when we grow up,” Becker said later. “It’s really cool to see them at this stage in their lives when everything is possible, everything is fun, and they are just so open to learning. Sometimes,” she added with a laugh.

Becker is a first-generation college student at DePaul where she is double-majoring in intercultural communications and sociology, with a minor in community service. Becker is one of an estimated 80 percent of college students who pay for some or all of their education. In her case, it’s all of it, and she pays for it on her own accord, rather than at the behest of her parents.

“At first they were kind of like, ‘Why?’” Becker said, describing her parents’ reaction when she told them she would like to attend college without their financial support. “They are very supportive and wanted to help me, but they know I’m very strong-willed and that if I want to do something, I’m gonna do it.”

Becker’s family includes two younger brothers, one of which has a disability that requires her mother to stay home, making her father the family’s main source of income. Because of their precarious financial situation, Becker saw it as her responsibility to ease the burden on her family. She also sees her education as more than a troublesome expense.

“I don’t think I can put a pricetag on the experiences I’m having,” she said. In addition to her job at Jumpstart, Becker babysits several times per week, volunteers in the community and also has numerous grants and scholarships that she said covers most of the $34,000 yearly tuition for a full-time student at DePaul.

In the two years she’s spent enrolled here, she has taken out about $15,000 in loans, and estimated that, after graduation, she will owe between $30,000 and $40,000 in student debt. That’s slightly higher than the national average amount of student debt owed, which is $29,400. The average amount for a DePaul graduate in 2012 was $28,284. None of this really seemed to bother Becker, though.

“I know it sounds, naive, but I don’t like to think about it a lot,” she said. “Obviously money is important, but I just don’t want it to be a source of stress in my life. Especially when, right now, it’s not an issue.”

Ashantis Jones is another DePaul student paying her way through school. Growing up in a “two-town family” in Cleveland, Jones’ parents said she was “not allowed to ask for any money” while at college. She prepared diligently when searching for schools, making sure to get her finances in order.

“I definitely did my homework before choosing the school I would be going to,” she said. “Compared to the people who are gonna be leaving school with $50,000 in debt, I’m doing excellent. I will be less than thirty (thousand dollars). As far as paying it off, everybody has student loans and everybody pays it off eventually.”

Jones is confident in her ability to manage her expenses, no doubt helped by her double minor in business administration and business management. But her need to prioritize her spending is something that still weighs on her mind “constantly.” While her parents usually pay her rent, they were not able to last month, forcing her to take on credit card debt.

“Even looking at the people I work with, a lot of them do get support from their parents,” she said. “They can afford to maybe not work five hours and change their schedule because they want to go and do homework at that time. I don’t really have that option.”