Young, In Debt and Unemployed: Why We're Protesting Sallie Mae's Shareholder Meeting
Hailee Koehler is a graduate from CU – Boulder and a staff member for the United States Student Association.
When I graduated from the University of Colorado in May of 2010 I was so excited. After 5 years of stress, tears, hard work and some of my most major accomplishments, I had finally finished what my parents had always demanded was absolutely crucial to my success in life, my bachelor’s degree. I remember being so proud and feeling ready to go out into the world to do something meaningful.
While I was a student, I was extremely engaged. I served as my student governments legislative affairs director, worked for a campus chapter of a non-profit that advocated for students, the homeless and the environment (to the tune of 25 hours a week as a volunteer), sat on my schools legislative affairs and diversity affairs commissions and worked to register voters during elections seasons. All of these opportunities allowed my access and the ability to develop very close relationships to my university’s top administrators and so, as I graduated, I felt confident that I would have no problem finding and getting a great job. I just knew that, even in the midst of the Great Recession, all of my extra experience would make me a shoe-in. I started submitting applications to different organizations all over the country and, while I wasn’t receiving responses right away, I refused to let myself get discouraged because I was sure that I was a cut above most of my peers. I had worked too hard at becoming a “well-rounded” person while I was in college. How could no one want me? Well, at the time, no one did. I ended up being unemployed for months before I had to take a job as a waitress in a small pizza joint located in the even smaller town of Lafayette, Colorado. Every day for a year, I worked making barely enough in tips to cover my expenses and I was miserable. In the evenings, I would scour newspapers and job websites looking for anything that would require some level of my intellectual investment and skill, to no avail. When I was convinced that I was a complete failure, I made the decision to go back to school not only so I could defer my student loan payments (which had started to roll in) but also so that I could take another stab at becoming good enough to find a job serving my community.
Fast-forward almost exactly two years. I am one class away from having an M.A. (something only about 3% of the world has) and I did find a job that I absolutely love but, I have a lot debt because of it. Between my 200.00 a month car payment, my $3,000.00 worth of credit card debt and my nearly $120,000.00 worth of student loan debt, I have had to make some really bad decisions, like the one to skip paying rent last month and the one to place my student loans into forbearance. That second decision was especially painful because, as an advocate working to fight for affordable education for all, I spend my days thinking about the student lending industry’s predatory practices and the ridiculously low level of support for higher education amongst voters and elected officials. I know that student loan debt has surpassed $1 trillion in this US# this year and that the average student graduates with $25,000 in student loan debt#. I also know that while my generation is the most indebted generation in history, Albert Lord, CEO of Sallie Mae, used part of his $40 million salary in 2007 to build himself a golf course# and that Sallie Mae’s stock portfolio is worth nearly $380 billion.
Regardless, I am relatively lucky. I did find a job and while I am not currently making enough money to stay completely on top of things, I am not as bad off as other recent graduates. Millions of other extremely qualified, “well-rounded” students have graduated with bachelors degrees over the last five years and around 1.5 million of them were without jobs or were underemployed just last year. Those who did have jobs
were more likely to be employed as waiters, waitresses, bartenders and food-service helpers than as engineers, physicists, chemists and mathematicians combined (100,000 versus 90,000). There were more working in office-related jobs such as receptionist or payroll clerk than in all computer professional jobs (163,000 versus 100,000). More also were employed as cashiers, retail clerks and customer representatives than engineers (125,000 versus 80,000)#.
These days, students have no choice but to be cautiously optimistic when they finish their educations. Long gone are the days when a college degree was a “golden ticket” into the world, guaranteeing a salary significantly greater to that of someone with just a high school diploma. Today, we are faced with brutal fights against each other for jobs and, thus, our survival.
My hope is that, someday soon, people living in the United States will wake up and realize how ridiculous this situation is and that investing in students is a serious investment in our country. I hope that voters and elected officials will start supporting measures to forgive large portions of federal student loans, to cap all interest rates on private student loans (such as those from Sallie Mae) to match federal interest rates (3.4%), to allow for the discharge of private student loans through bankruptcy and, in the end, to do everything that we can to make education accessible to everyone because, after all, education is supposed to be a right.