‘We’re struggling to survive’: student debt still weighing down people over 30

In the third of a series of election year discussion groups, thirty- and forty-somethings in Albany grapple with longstanding college debt

People who live around Albany are used to having to explain that being from New York does not automatically mean that you’re from New York City. It can be annoying to be constantly explaining that unemployment is lower, housing is less expensive, there are definitely more people than cows and it is, after all, the center of the state’s government, even if New York City folks believe they’re the center of the universe.

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But for many thirty- or fortysomething residents of the state capital, about 150 miles north of Manhattan, their student debt is still weighing them down, despite their having aged out of the twentysomething demographic that is the focus of public student debt sympathy.

“I pay $700 a month in student loans and I didn’t go to a fancy school,” explained Deanna Fox, 30, a writer who lives in Delanson, to a table full of people in their 30s and 40s gathered at the Riverfront Bar and Grille in Albany. “But there really wasn’t any opportunity as far as scholarships go: because I came from a very middle-class family, I was too wealthy – even though we didn’t have much – to get a lot of state-funded grants or scholarships, and wasn’t wealthy enough for my parents to pay for me to go to college out of their own pockets.

“So I had to take out probably 75% of my funding for college as a loan, and most of it was private loans.”

“I also pay $700 in student loans a month,” said Emily Lemieux, a 34-year-old museum professional living in Albany, “and I also didn’t go to fancy schools.”

Young millennials get more attention for their student loan burdens, but students faced such hefty burdens nearly 15 years earlier. Most college-educated people in their 30s and early 40s went to college just as tuition rates began their meteoric climbs, and at or around the time when the federal government got out of the student loan game and turned over the origination of federally subsidized loans to private companies like Sallie Mae. These students entered the working world at either the end of the first tech bubble, shortly after 9/11, in the middle of two wars or at the start of the Great Recession.

This demographic is nearly as likely as millennials are to identify as political independents – especially in Albany, where about 30% of registered voters opt out of identifying as either Democrats or Republicans. That’s about average outside of the New York City area.

Anna Varney, a 40-year old account executive with the digital marketing company Overit, said: “I specifically went to [the State University of New York at] Albany so that I wouldn’t have student loans, so I limited all of my life choices, in a way, because I didn’t want student loans, because I knew that would limit me down the road.”

Varney’s colleague at Overit, 35-year-old Jennifer Van Iderstyne, said, “There has been this slow rise in the cost of higher education that’s really happened over the last couple of decades to the point where it was burdensome on those of us who were in school 10 years ago. It’s an impossibility for those who are heading into it now.”

Deanna Fox, 30 (from left), Jennifer Van Iderstyne, 35, Emily Lemieux, 34, and Jeff Cutler, 42, listen during a conversation about the presidential election on 9 May 2016 in Albany, New York. Photograph: Bastien Inzaurralde for the Guardian
Deanna Fox, 30 (from left), Jennifer Van Iderstyne, 35, Emily Lemieux, 34, and Jeff Cutler, 42, listen during a conversation about the presidential election on 9 May 2016 in Albany, New York. Photograph: Bastien Inzaurralde for the Guardian Photograph: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Guardian

“We’re struggling to survive with those debts,” she added. “They don’t even have a chance.”

Latham resident Ben Backes, 35, who works in biotech, jumped in. “The cost of college over that 15 years ... has kept going up, and so it’s just like, it seems like you’re paddling upstream and the current is taking everybody with it.”

Fox was focused, too, on the opportunity costs of having to take out loans to fund her education. “I think about how I could put that money towards my own children’s education; I could’ve put more of a down payment on my house that I bought,” she said.

“You know, 70 years ago, people had limited choices but they also had more choices,” mused Fox. “You could become a farmer and it would pay for your family. You could become a doctor and you wouldn’t be mired down in debt for the rest of your life.”

Lemieux said: “I just think about my grandpa, who went to world war II and he came back and he went to work at GM. He had six kids and his wife never worked, and they had a summer home, and that was like, their whole life was his job.”

“Can you imagine having six kids on one income now, for somebody that didn’t go to college?” she asked. “You could have two people go to college and still ...” She trailed off, the meaning clear to everyone at the table.

But while almost everyone was in similar economic circumstances, Jeff Cutler, a 42-year-old software engineer who lives in Cohoes, New York, felt there were others to blame besides college administrators. “I’m a bit later in my career than everybody else – I paid off my student loans, things like that – and I’m very concerned that the government is not working, or our politicians,” he said. “They have some ideas that have been fed to them over the years that they double down on, they triple down on. And so it’s really not addressing the concerns of average Americans.”

Van Iderstyne agreed. “I believe that the absence of term limits and the existence of being a politician as a lifetime career, for many of these people, leads them to make compromised decisions that are not really in the best interest of the people or fixing our problems,” she said.

“When you have half the government, half of our elected officials saying, ‘We don’t think government works, we want to get rid of government,’ how is government ever going to work?” asked Cutler. “I want it to work because I’m sending a quarter to a third of my salary there. I want it to work well!”

One example of politicians’ failure to effectively govern is infrastructure, the group agreed. Van Iderstyne said: “I went to school at Suny [the State University of New York] Potsdam – that’s way up north, like, Suny Canada. There were, like, hundreds of miles up there that are basically inaccessible,” making it impossible to attract economic development that could sustain residents.

Clockwise from left: Jennifer Van Iderstyne, Jeff Cutler, Ben Backes, and Anna Varney.
Clockwise from left: Jennifer Van Iderstyne, Jeff Cutler, Ben Backes, and Anna Varney. Photograph: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Guardian

Fox said it’s not just physical accessibility that needs improvement. “There’s no internet, there’s no broadband, there’s no phone service,” she said. “Part of that you can’t really help; you’re in the middle of the Adirondacks. But at the same time, I live 20 miles from here and I have no broadband.”

“It costs from a business standpoint; I would say that the cost is prohibitive,” noted Backes. “But isn’t that why we have a federal government? To find some way to offset some of those costs, so that the people who choose to live in those areas, or can’t afford to get out of them – which, back to the education thing – they’d have some options?”

“The fact is that it may not make sense, economic sense, to have broadband out where you are,” Cutler said. “However, from a standpoint of society, it’s very important to have that there. And for America in general, actually, ultimately it’s better for business – but the return on investment takes so long that a business might not be willing to do that.”

And that brought Cutler to one of his biggest concerns when he hears people advocating for a businessman to run the government. “Businesspeople have different concerns than what we need for effective government,” he said. “And the idea that a businessman will magically be able to solve all the problems – they’re not concerned about what the average person needs, they’re worried about numbers and profits and loss.”

“That’s exactly it!” exclaimed Backes. “Short term! Everything I feel like I’ve heard this election cycle, and every previous election cycle is, ‘Well, what are you going to do for me today?’ – because that’s what’s on most people’s minds, because of their crippling debt.” He added: “So the role of government, for me, is to have these long-term visions and to be able to help that.”

Fox added: “Having a businessman? Businesses are the ones that are financing campaigns. And so it seems like the general American populace is completely eradicated from the political process besides pandering to get their votes.”

“So many of the problems we’re talking about aren’t really made or broken on the presidential level,” said Van Iderstyne. “This is all in Congress. The president gets eight years, period, but your congressman can be there 30-plus years.

“So what’s his incentive to take a pay cut or to enact campaign finance reform that’s going to negatively affect his ability to make TV ads the next time around?” she asked.

“I don’t trust any of them,” said Backes. “But I don’t cast my vote necessarily for the one I trust.

“For me, most of our elections really seem to come down to the lesser of two evils. The least of three,” he added.

“Every election comes down to that,” said Varney.

“I feel like it speaks to the character of the kind of people who are now attracted to politics,” said Van Iderstyne. “And also what you have to be and what you have to be willing to accept in terms of invasion and living your life in a fishbowl.”

Anna Varney: ‘I limited my life choices in a way.’
Anna Varney: ‘You would think the recession would have been a unifying issue.’ Photograph: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Guardian

“Unfortunately, it feels like the people who are the smartest people to solve those problems are too smart to get involved,” Fox piped up.

“I think it’s definitely become more polarized,” said Fox. “And I think that part of the problem, too, is that there hasn’t been a unifying issue that people really connect over.”

“You would think the recession would have been a unifying issue; you would think war against terrorism would be a unifying issue,” said Varney.

“You would think mass shootings in our schools would be unifying issues,” said Van Iderstyne. “But they’re not. It’s too divisive.”

“There’s two ends of that discussion,” said Fox. “There’s ‘take away your guns’ or ‘keep your guns’. It’s seems like that’s the only thing that people can focus on.”

“It’s so black or white,” said Backes.

“It’s not,” said Varney. “We could have nuance.”

Lemieux added: “In a school shooting, everyone doesn’t unify around getting a solution. They’re opposite. And then we having nothing.”

Voices of America footnote


Megan Carpentier

The GuardianTramp

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