Student Loan Debt, Equality, Social Class, And Lessons Learned From The Adulthood Project

This week on the Adulthood project I chose to look at two different topics having to do with equality, social class, and student loans in the United States. I have been looking at the pathways of reaching adulthood and how this is different between people of different economic backgrounds. I have also been focusing a lot on higher education and how this system seems to be reinforcing the idea of class immobility among students and the burdens of becoming financially independent after college.

The first article I read this week is Possible Path to Closing Pay Gap By: Sendhil Mullainathan. This article focuses on his theory that women are going to close the pay gap between men and women in the workplace based on their educational progress. Overall, women perform better in school than men in high school and in college. Since women are being more productive in the classroom this causes Mullainathan to expect women to not only close the pay gap, but also start making more on average than men. However, Mullainathan also points out two reasons that this trend seen in schools might not translate to the workplace. The first being that men typically do better in a competitive environment by being overconfidence and risk-seeking which could have greater benefits in the workplace, at least in some jobs, than they do in school. Second, jobs and society are structured for traditional gender roles, such as taking time off to rear children — making them less productive in the economy. Mullainathan thinks that society is ultimately the one holding women back and argues that women should be making as much if not more money than men based on academic achievement, which the job market is highly dependent upon when hiring future employers, and concludes the only reason the gap has not closed is because of gender discrimination within our nations policies and people’s stereotypical perception of women being less productive than men in the labor force. I somewhat agree with Mullainathan because in the United States where college and higher education is the pathway to success it makes sense that by now with record numbers of women attending college and on average women’s GPA becoming higher and higher than men’s it seems like this gap should be closing faster but is not. She states that, “Family commitments and household responsibilities will not disappear. Closing or reversing the gender gap, as Ms. Goldin noted in her presidential address to the American Economic Association, ‘must involve alterations in the labor market, in particular changing how jobs are structured and remunerated to enhance temporal flexibility’”. Since men are paid higher wages than women it leads us to believe men are more productive, but shouldn’t then the schooling gap suggest that women are less productive as well when it clearly shows that opposite? This fact just shows that there are other underling causes to why men are paid more than women and productivity and intelligence is not one of them. This inequality is in society and parallels the inequality seen in college through the different social classes. You can be a great student and not be able to afford the best college because of your economic background, or you can take out loans and go to that great school but spend your time working two to three jobs paying off your student loan debt instead of working your way up the ladder in your career. There is inequality everywhere but it doesn’t have to do with intelligence or productivity it has to do with resources and society. Mullainathan ends with a good thought provoking question asking, “Maybe we shouldn’t be asking when women will catch up. Maybe they’ve already caught up, and we should instead ask whether society is holding them back”.

The next article I read is called, A Generation Hobbled by the Soaring Cost of College by, Andrew Martin and Andrew Lehren.  This article seemed to have mixed feelings on the growing student loan debt in America. From one perspective the authors discussed the massive outstanding student loan debt at $1 trillion in the United States today. Martin and Lehren say that a college degree statistically remains a good lifetime investment, but it often comes with an unprecedented financial burden. They talk about how the average debt in 2011 was $23,300 with 10% borrowing more than $54,000, and 3% more than $100,00. However, at elite schools like Princeton and Williams loans range from under $10,000 not only because these schools attract wealthier students, but because they have much more money and financial aid to offer their less affluent students. I learned from reading these article and the adulthood project that what many intelligent students don’t realize is even though the price tag on these schools are significantly higher tan many other less elite schools they are affordable at the same time because they have so much money to give out to the small percent of students from lower classes that actually apply and attend these schools. That information is just not present enough in our high schools to encourage successful lower class students to apply to these types of schools. Instead they are attending schools with many other people of a lower class and to schools with not as much aid to give out and more students that need more of this kind if aid. This leaves many students to look to lenders and the government for support that they have to repay after they graduate. The article goes on to compare the increasing student loan debt to the mortgage crisis. Rajeev V. Date, deputy director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal watchdog created after the financial crisis likened excessive student borrowing to risky mortgages. Martin and Lehren state, “…its roots are in fact deep, and the cast of contributing characters — including college marketing officers, state lawmakers wielding a budget ax and wide-eyed students and families — has been enabled by a basic economic dynamic: an insatiable demand for a college education, at almost any price, and plenty of easy-to-secure loans, primarily from the federal government”. Even though the two situations are not completely comparable on many levels such that student loan total balance is still smaller than the mortgage market and student loans are given by the federal government and which wouldn’t affect the banks as much as the collapse of the housing market, but they do have frightening similarities. For example, according to the article, “Much like the mortgage brokers who promised pain-free borrowing to homeowners just a few years back, many colleges don’t offer warnings about student debt in the glossy brochures and pitch letters mailed to prospective students. Instead, reading from the same handbook as for-profit colleges, they urge students not to worry about the costs. That’s because most students don’t pay full price”. I believe this is true n a sense that colleges do not necessarily prepare you for the burden of student loans but that is also something that someone taking out loans attending an institution should look into himself or herself. Also, the media seems to be making this crisis of student loan debt much more intense than it is in actuality for the majority of students. Even this article gives you a preview of a few select horror stories targeting students that owe upwards of $80,00 and the three jobs these students have to take to pay off their bills. However, that is not the norm and those students seemed to be the outliers that are being focused on in the media which is scaring students from lower classes to even apply to those expensive elite institutions or even four year institutions that would actually give them more money to attend than these for-profits schools that are the ones where students come out with the most amount of debt. Also, if you want to have a chance at being successful in this economy a college degree for the most part is a necessity and what most economists call “good debt” which most students pay off and obtain a higher salary overall than people who did not attend college. So this article does promote the over-hyped version of the “student loan debt crisis”, but does address that this is not the storyline for every student, which I believe should be given more attention to.

In conclusion to looking at social class in college and it’s affects on adulthood I have come out with a confused sense of whether I feel pessimistic or optimistic about my own and others in my situation’s transition into adulthood. I feel a little pessimistic due to the amount of articles I have read on the decreasing opportunities for social mobility. A lot of decisions and paths we take in our life seem to rely on the economic state of our parents and not our own power of determination. College is supposed to be an equal playing field for all students to get ahead and the most intelligent and determined students are the ones that come out on top. However, there is a reason that most of these students that come out on top are the ones whose parents are in the top quartile of family income. Students from lower classes seem to struggle with stability in reaching adulthood because they have les opportunities. Well I believe more opportunities are available to them, but they just are not educated to take risks and reach for them. Many people argue that are colleges promote inequality but it starts with primary education who are educating students from different classes differently and keeping them within what they believe are their social limits. College is just the outcome from what students educators and parents believe are the right paths, but with increasing attention and more information available to students I believe college someday will become an equal playing field for students and the American Dream will be a reality for more people to achieve what their parents didn’t know or didn’t have the opportunity to achieve. This will help to create a steadier path to adulthood for people in every class, it might mean reaching adulthood at an older age than what our baby boomer parents expect, but I think that if social equality and opportunities increase than so will the consistency of reaching adulthood.

Overall on the adulthood project have learned a lot in regards to the process of data analysis, reliability, coding data, and the organization and hard work that goes into having solid qualitative evidence. I have learned how exciting it can be to uncover patterns and themes throughout a data set, and how much fun and interesting Sociology and Anthropology majors can be to work with. I have not only gained extremely useful skills that will help me in the research field after I graduate, but I gained two friends; my fellow researchers Elizabeth and Campbell. It was so great to work with these two and Professor Swyers and be able to have real conversations about what it means to be an adult from three people of intelligence with very different perspectives coming from three very different places in their lives. This team made me love coming to work and created an atmosphere that got me excited to work hard, but also be myself and learn from them as well. They taught me how to code but also how to find adorable kittens online when I needed a break using the itty bitty kitten committee. I learned so much from the last three weeks and feel much more confident to go into the work force, not over stress about my students loans, and I realized that there is no right or wrong “path” to adulthood, and you can really achieve anything you set your mind to with confidence and a good attitude. I don’t see myself on a path to adulthood anymore but more of a journey and experiences that will make me into the kind of the adult that I want to be at the right time for me.