In retrospect, the number seems outrageous. $110,000. How long does it take even count that high? How big a pile would 110,000 $1 bills make? How heavy would that be in pennies?
But, there it was, sitting on my balance sheet for eight years. My debt sat at the table for every financial conversation, like an insufferable dinner guest. It told me that I couldn’t start a company, buy a house, pursue my dreams nor travel. It cautioned me to be careful about who I married, where I lived, what profession I chose. It molded me in its image — as a plucky worker for major corporations.
It took me far away from the life I had imagined for myself — as a novelist living and working in New York City. It was the life I dreamt of, as I grew up lower-middle class in Flint, Mich. My mother worked three jobs to keep on the lights and occasionally relied on food stamps to put dinner on the table. However, ever sanguine, she told me that America made a promise to each of its children — that if I worked hard I could become anything I wanted to be.
And I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to move others with my words, to write stories that made people shift their perception, characters that brought neighbors together. This motivation, at times, felt like a personality defect. And one that, admittedly, it took me a long time to try to achieve. After focusing for too long on girls instead of grades, I buckled down. I managed a number of undergrad accolades then readied my application for Northwestern University’s School of Journalism.
Yes, I chose to be a journalist. What other than the profession of Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and Clark Kent should pay my bills while I wrote the next great American novel?
So, I sent off the letter with my hopes, then waited until one day when I received a thick bundle. I was elated. It was the school of my dreams, but then reality set in. How would I pay for it?
The total came to more than $80,000 for tuition alone — a sum that is, in today’s standards, comparably small. Today, my final total of $110,000 is a drop in the bucket for students across the U.S., who hold a whopping $1.5 trillion in debt, an amount so monumental no billionaire could wipe it away with the wave of a hand. (Though at least one presidential candidate would like to try.) Many of those indebted are minority students who are the first into college. Some never graduated and now work menial jobs with a huge weight on their shoulders or a stain on their records. Many, like me, had no other options.
I have had friends encounter medical debt, natural disasters or be unable to find stable employment, all while suffering under six-figure debt. In all these respects and more, I have been incredibly lucky. I found good jobs that paid me well. I met a loving spouse who supports my eccentricities. And I bought a house that appreciated dramatically. All of which allowed me to pay off my student loans last month.
Yet, my artistic desire pushed me to write. And, finding no other topic as present as my frustration with the country that I thought would reward me for my hard work and only instead demanded nearly 7 percent interest, I wrote a book called Populace. The protagonist had an implant that would blow up should he fail to become successful. A single company owns the country. You have no choices, just medications, to improve your lot in life.
At the heart of the story lies the burden and frustration carried with my generation’s debt. Past the obvious financial implications — we don’t open small businesses or go out as often, sure — we are too burdened by our loans to become artists, or public servants, or philosophers. We are beyond harried. We work day jobs then drive Uber at night; we bartend when not behind a desk. We are indentured servants to the U.S. government, which instead of seeing its country as a nation full of promise, views us as a list of line items. We are all balance sheets, living under the weight of Uncle Sam’s imposing bureaucracy.
Truly, how much more beauty, invention, art and innovation would live in the world if the flowers of my generation’s creativity weren’t choked by the weeds of our debt?
I don’t wish to distort the wonderful ride I’ve had over the past eight years, nor the country that allowed me to ascend so rapidly, instead I want to ask the many decisionmakers and voters in America to consider what they’re doing when they put the American Dream behind a paywall. Who do they help? And who do they hurt?