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My wife Niki and I grew up in San Antonio. Not the San Antonio we currently occupy, the one embracing urban renaissance and an influx of culture and youth, but the one around Loop 1604: the suburban sprawl of malls, chain restaurants, and cookie cutter homes.

We both grew up in two-parent households. We both had fathers who went to work every day while our mothers stayed home to teach us, love us, and raise us. We were told we could be anything we wanted – always encouraged to go to college and told that it would open doors. We were encouraged to reach for the best universities, that cost should never be a barrier.

We both recently returned to San Antonio after I spent a couple of years earning a master’s degree at Vanderbilt. Now we both face over $100,000 in college debt with few realistic ways to conquer it.

John and his wife, Niki, at John's graduation ceremony at Trinity University.
John and his wife, Niki, at John’s graduation ceremony at Trinity University.

Neither Niki nor I regret our decisions. We both went to Trinity University and we both pursued graduate degrees – she a Masters of Art in Teaching from Trinity and I a Masters of Theological Studies from Vanderbilt. We loved the private school experience and we will always value the education we received.

Niki’s and my frustration with our current debt doesn’t come from the fact that we have to pay for our education but rather from the fact that even with copious amounts of financial aid, we walked out of college newly married, in our early 20’s, and with a home owner’s sized noose hanging around our necks. For us, the difficulty is not so much in paying these obligations off. It is that we have to delay living in order to do so.

John and his wife, Niki, at Vanderbilt.
John and his wife, Niki, at Vanderbilt.

After graduation, Niki and I got married and moved to Nashville so that I could complete a master’s program. While Niki’s education at a top rate teaching school enabled her to find work, we still had to live modestly in order to stay afloat on our loan interest. It was during this time that we started to feel the most anxiety about our future. The biggest frustration with the whole experience was that even though the student loans were being paid, it was like paying a second rent. Over the course of our two years away, we ended up making very little headway.

Upon our return to San Antonio, we thought things would get easier. We assumed that I would be able to find work fairly quickly and that we would really be able to begin attacking the debt. However, even though I firmly believe in the critical thinking skills the liberal arts schools I attended taught me, it is difficult proving it to employers in the current economy. This makes our position even more tough as the grace period for repaying my loans ends, and my debts are added to those of Niki’s that we already are paying.

Both of us are now working, but what we earn goes almost entirely to nothing other than our college loans. We are looking at that kind of lifestyle for the next four or five years.

Our story isn’t unique, and many our age face similar financial struggles and burdens. Many are forced to move back in with parents to alleviate the pressures of loans, while others are compelled to take jobs for which they are over qualified or hate in order to just make enough money to get up the next day and do it all over again.

We watched our parents go off to their white-collar jobs every day and we listened as they complained about it at night. We were told we could be architects, writers, teachers, and lawyers and we went off to college with these ideas in our heads. We majored in the liberal arts and we studied topics like Art History, Sociology, Philosophy, and English. We were told to learn what we enjoy, follow our dreams and help make a better world.

The problems with this direction, for many of us, come after graduation.  According to lasts year’s figures, of college loan borrowers, 1 in 4 borrowing students leave undergrad  with more than $30,000 in debt.

crazy student loans 2011-q2

This overwhelming amount of debt prevents many of us from doing what we were always taught to do and what we were always told we could do. It forces us to choose taking a job we don’t feel led to do. We forsake our calling to become the creative, innovate entrepreneurs the 21st century needs. Debt forces us to take the kind of jobs we watched our parents complain about rather than jobs that provide services to those in need.

While ours is not the first generation to face college debt, we are the first to face it in such exorbitant amounts. During my four years  as an undergrad student, my tuition costs rose by about 6% annually. Admittedly, I was lucky. Trinity was generous with financial aid and looked for every way to help out. However, even given that I had parents who attended the university and had left with debt, my expectations about the amount I would owe and my abilities to pay it off were a bit naïve.

This is the new reality for many post-college 20 somethings who happen to be liberal arts majors. Supremely educated, ambitious, imminently employable, looking to help out rather than bring in lots of money, but saddled with more debt out of school than almost anyone from our parents’ generation and forced to pass up great opportunities because they just don’t pay enough to help us conquer our obligations. This last fact became most  disappointingly apparent to me when I recently had to turn down a job working with a wonderful nonprofit called the San Antonio Club House because it was not able to offer enough for my wife and I to service our loans.

College debt is the crisis facing college graduates. It is unsustainable and it has far-reaching negative implications for the future health of our country and economy. If we want our nation’s young creative minds to move into positions of leadership and to develop the tools needed for the 21st century world then it is an issue we must begin to address. Until something changes, colleges and universities will continue to graduate people like Niki and I who cannot pursue our passions because $100,000 or more in college debt is our reality.

It’s a trap, not just for us, but for all of society.

John Burnam is a first time contributor to the Rivard Report and an independent nonprofit consultant currently working with San Antonio Christian Dental and The Louise Batz Foundation for Bedside Advocacy. He works in patient safety, community health and well-being, and nonprofit development. He graduated from Trinity University with a Bachelors in Art History and Classic and then from Vanderbilt University  with a masters degree in theological studies.  Prospective employers can check him out on LinkedIn.

(Full disclosure: The Arsenal Group has performed consulting service for Trinity University, but does not publish sponsored stories.)

Related Stories on the Rivard Report:

The Freelance Generation: A Young American Calls Out ‘The American Dream” September 2012

The New American Dream: The Uncomfortable Reality of Diminished Expectations September 2012

The $10,000 Degree: Backlash to a Generation Crushed by College Debt May 2012

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John Burnam

John Burnam is the co-founder and principal of Burnam | Gray, a nonprofit consulting firm that seeks to help agencies ignite and scale best practices.