Millennial debt tops $1 trillion nationally

Millennials had approximately $380 million in student loan debt at the end of 2018.

by Dylan Miettinen

Total debt among millennials has surpassed $1 trillion, according to a federal report released last month.

The report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York recorded the highest amount of debt for individuals ages 18 to 29 since 2007. Student loans made up the highest share of the debt at 38 percent. Roughly translated, millennials had about $380 billion in student loan debt at the end of 2018. 

University of Minnesota fourth-year psychology student Lydia Fess said she is unsure if she will be able to attend graduate school due to her student loan debts.

“I’ve had pretty much three jobs every semester since I’ve started college to try and pay [student loans] off. Now, I’m looking at grad school and I’m wondering, ‘Will I have to give up what I’m really wanting to do?’” she said.

Fess said she feels the extraordinary amount of student debt is a daunting problem facing many young Americans in higher education. Christopher Phelan, professor and chair of the University’s Department of Economics, said the nation is discussing the problem of student debt all wrong.

“The ones who graduate with hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt are students from professional schools, older students, med school, law school, veterinary school – things like that,” Phelan said. “I don’t see any reason why people like that shouldn’t graduate with a lot of debt. It’s just a way of helping them pay for something that mostly benefits them.”

However, Stephen Schultz, an officer of the Personal Finance Club and a fourth-year student, said he helped start the club to address some of the financial questions many of his peers faced. 

“Personally, in high school, I was never really taught how to handle credit scores or how to take out loans,” Schultz said. 

At Schultz’s high school, he said students sought out personal finance courses because they were mandatory.

“I thought it was pretty disingenuous to say, ‘You have to go to college,’ which, for a lot of careers is definitely true, but it seems like [educators] don’t really emphasize the consequences of that kind of decision,” Schultz said.

Though both Schultz and Fess said they wished finances had been a greater part of their education, Phelan said it is the responsibility of students to know what they are getting themselves into when it comes to accruing debt. 

“Every now and then, you see someone holding up a little sign on the internet saying, ‘I have $150,000 in student loan debt,’ and their major isn’t something that’s going to qualify them for making a lot of money. That person probably didn’t choose wisely,” he said. “Eighteen-year-olds are adult citizens of this society, so they should act like adults. If you’re going to sign up for a loan, know what you’re signing up for.”

Fess said teaching personal finance at the university level is something that should also be looked into.

“Financial literacy doesn’t quite get that attention for something that is so vital across your entire life and is so pertinent to college students,” she said.

Schultz added the mental health implications of carrying debt should also be addressed more.

“The University of Minnesota does a really good job of dealing with things like stress with things like PAWS. But they often dance around the fact that a major cause of stress is the exorbitant cost of tuition,” he said.

Though she isn’t quite sure what awaits her after graduation, Fess said the debt she’s accumulated from student loans will influence many of her future decisions.

“When you have these loans, you have to think about the things that’ll help you pay them off. It’s less about thinking about the future you want for yourself, and more about what you have to do to get yourself onto solid economic footing,” Fess said.