In our younger years, my older brother and I enjoyed drastically different pursuits. I loved school, but my brother detested it. While my predilection for books led me to bury my head within pages and concoct story ideas, my brother’s entrepreneurial mind devised business plans and ways to diversify his savings (which usually meant hiding money in numerous crannies I couldn’t reach). While I pranced about his room shoving my report cards in his face, he’d sit there fanning himself with the cash he earned from his paychecks. We — like many other siblings — thrived upon light-hearted antagonism. Therefore, “nerd,” “loser” and “bookworm” soon became his preferred names for me. Likewise, I’d continually flap my arms in his presence, chanting that “all the little birdies flying over his shoulder chirped ‘cheap, cheap, cheap.’ ”

Melissa Scholke

Over time as we both matured and when he finished college, I realized my brother’s concern about money wasn’t a sign of greed. Especially after I grasped the fact my desire to continue in academia would require submergence in a sea of student-loan debt, I realized why my brother spent years storing money away in various caches he referred to as “funds.” I understood why he spent so many summers working all day, only to come home exhausted and to tell me to leave him alone and let him sleep. Just as I viewed good grades, books and extracurriculars as an avenue to a life I would enjoy, he saw money as a way to ensure financial security and a better life. As I utilize some of his old tactics to figure out my loan totals each year, I begin to think he just wanted to avoid the nauseating apprehension I feel swirling in my gut each time I newly calculate the obscene amount of debt I’ll owe after graduation. I could see why he’d try so hard to avoid that anxiety.

I had absolutely no clue about social mobility as a child. I wouldn’t have understood moving up in socio-economic class was what my brother intended to do with his savings and his degree. Sadly, as I make progress towards graduation, the concept of social mobility seems more and more like a twisted fairy tale. Costs of college tuition have increased by approximately 1,122 percent since 1978. Medical costs have only increased by roughly 600 percent in that same time period. Currently, student-loan debt at the national level has reached roughly $1.2 trillion. For college students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, student loans — as well as the accompanying debt — aren’t merely an option, they’re an absolute necessity. Pell grants — which were specifically intended to assist students from low-income backgrounds — are now covering the smallest fragment of college tuition costs since they were first implemented.

Student loans pose an obvious impediment to social mobility for poorer students. However, the drawbacks of this particular debt are not solely financial. In a Gallup poll, it was found that individuals who accrue more than $50,000 in debt after graduation tend to experience difficulty in other aspects of their lives as well. Individuals embarking on post-grad life burdened by debt often experience a lack of purpose and a lack of community in their lives. They don’t feel motivated to achieve goals. They don’t enjoy their work or where they live, and they don’t feel safe in the communities where they reside.

Loan debt creates anxiety-inducing situations, but there are other ways in which debt weakens the health of college grads. In the Gallup poll, the individuals surveyed reported experiencing declines in physical health. High levels of debt are correlated with the likelihood of experiencing anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. Likewise, owing overwhelming amounts of debt is correlated to high blood pressure, which can lead to the development of other ailments such as stroke or hypertension. Considering many graduates who take out loans are from poorer backgrounds, the inability to afford proper medical care is yet another factor placing their health at risk.

Individuals from poorer backgrounds are consistently told to work hard in order to go to college and to obtain a degree. Their persistence and struggle will supposedly guarantee success and a better life, but in reality, they risk becoming ensnared in debt with poor health and little motivation. The purpose of student loans is to provide aid to determined individuals seeking education, but unless there’s a major tuition reform or the creation of more options to guarantee aid, loans will more often offer stagnation and further hardship instead of opportunity for underprivileged students.

Melissa Scholke can be reached at melikaye@umich.edu.

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