Nearly half of twentysomethings have stopped paying a debt, forcing lenders to "charge off" the debt and sell it to a collection agency, or had cars repossessed or sought bankruptcy protection.
High debt loads are causing anxiety, too. A poll of twentysomethings by USA TODAY and the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) found 60% feel they're facing tougher financial pressures than young people did in previous generations. And 30% say they worry frequently about their debt.
"I have nightmares," says Heather Schopp, 29, of Long Beach, Calif., who accrued $165,000 in student-loan debt to become a chiropractor. "I dream I'm on a hot-air balloon, hanging on for dear life."
Among all twentysomethings, the fastest-growing group owes $20,000 or more in student-loan debt. Though it's a small group, its proportion has doubled in the past five years to 3%.
"This debt-for-diploma system is strangling our young people right when they're starting out in life," says Tamara Draut, author of Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30- Somethings Can't Get Ahead. "It's creating a sense of futility that no matter what they do, they're not going to be able to get ahead. It's a sense of hopelessness."
A change of plans
Debt has forced some young people to change their career plans. Of those surveyed, 22% say they've taken a job they otherwise wouldn't have because they needed more money to pay off student-loan debt. Twenty-nine percent say they've put off or chosen not to pursue more education because they have so much debt already. And 26% have put off buying a home for the same reason.
A smaller percentage say they've put off marrying (11%) or having children (14%).
The Boomerang Generation — young adults who return to live with their parents — is real, too. In the poll, of 910 twentysomethings, 19% said they've moved back with parents to cut costs. The 2000 Census found that more than 25% of 18 to 34-year-olds had moved back in with family at the time the Census was taken.
Yep, this is what you call the "ownership society." American college graduates are owned by their education debt.
What are the reasons for this problem? Again, from the article:
What exactly is tougher about the financial challenges facing today's young adults? Shireman of the Project on Student Debt points to:
•Skyrocketing tuition. The average price of college has grown much faster than the rate of inflation. Average annual tuition at public four-year colleges and universities is $5,836 in 2006-07, up 268% from 1976-77, according to the U.S. Education Department and the National Center for Education Statistics. Private college tuition is up 248% to $22,218 a year.
•Declining student grants. Though total federal student aid has grown sharply, so has the proportion of people in college. In 2004, 67% of high school graduates enrolled in college; in 1972, only 49% did. As a result, student grants cover only 39% of the costs of a four-year college today, compared with nearly 80% in the mid-1970s, the College Board says.
•Soaring student-loan debt. Students have generally made up the gap between what colleges charge and what they can afford by borrowing. The percentage of students who borrowed for college jumped to 65% in 2000-01 from 34% in 1977, the National Center for Education Statistics says.
And they use credit cards to help pay for books and other items. Half of all graduates in 2004 used credit cards for school expenses, the American Council on Education found.
•Flat wages. Once students graduate, jobs don't pay what they used to.
Thirty years ago, a male college graduate could make the equivalent of $51,223 a year in 2004 inflation-adjusted dollars. In 2004, he earned less: $50,700, according to the NCES. Wages for women, though, have risen.
•Rising home prices. It takes a greater portion of the average income to buy a median-price home today. In 1970, it was 17%; in 2005, 22.4%. The median price of a home was $23,000 in 1970. Adjusted for inflation, that's $115,770 — barely more than half the median price of $219,000 in 2005.
"Twentysomethings now are crunched in ways older people were not," says Cathy Stocker, co-author of The Quarterlifer's Companion, a book for twentysomethings. "The cost of education has far outpaced income, and housing costs have skyrocketed. They're crunched from all directions."
For more information on how this all fits into the Big Picture, see my previous posts here and the Warren Reports generally. Just click on the Warren Reports tab for more articles.