Today the average college grad leaves school with just over $24,000 in debt, an amount that eats up $276 every month if you stretch the payments out over ten years and it’s a government loan with a 6.8 percent interest rate. Of course, one out of five students also carries more costly private loans, where interest rates are in the double digits and fees add to the balance. This debt-for-diploma system is what counts as opportunity in America today. And it is animating much of the frustration and passion of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The debt-for-diploma system is just one of the many ways it has gotten harder for this generation to either work or educate their way into the middle class. A handmade sign at Zuccotti Park summed it up perfectly: “I went broke trying to become middle class.” Far too many of today’s twentysomethings are earning less than their parents did at the same age—a downward slide that was true even before the Great Recession left a jobless generation in its wake. Today, young men earn 90 cents for every dollar their fathers earned in 1980. Young women make more, about $1.16 for every dollar their mothers brought home in 1980—gains driven by better job prospects, more college degrees and longer working hours. But those overall trends mask a big divergence between the college haves and the college have-nots. Over the course of a generation, only young people with bachelor’s degrees have seen substantial increases in their earnings—cold comfort to the legions of twentysomethings struggling to pay back their student loans while working in jobs that don’t require a degree, or with no job at all.