I know, from having been a college professor, that tuition is expensive. I also know it from my own kids having gone to and planning on going to college. I understand those who struggle under heavy student-loan burdens. I, too, had to borrow money to go to college.
Chad Haag considered living in a cave to escape his student debt. He had a friend doing it. But after some plotting, he settled on what he considered a less risky plan. This year, he relocated to a jungle in India. “I’ve put America behind me,” Haag, 29, said. Today he lives in a concrete house in the village of Uchakkada for $50 a month. His backyard is filled with coconut trees and chickens. “I saw four elephants just yesterday,” he said, adding that he hopes never to set foot in a Walmart again.
Some student loan borrowers are packing their bags and fleeing from the U.S. to other countries, where the cost of living is often lower and debt collectors wield less power over them. Although there is no national data on how many people have left the United States because of student debt, borrowers tell their stories of doing so in Facebook groups and Reddit channels and how-to advice is offered on personal finance websites. “It may be an issue we see an uptick in if the trends keep up,” said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
Outstanding student debt in the U.S. has tripled over the last decade and is projected to swell to $2 trillion by 2022. Average debt at graduation is currently around $30,000, up from an inflation-adjusted $16,000 in the early 1990s. Meanwhile, salaries for new bachelor degree recipients, also accounting for inflation, have remained almost flat over the last few decades.
Haag’s student loan balance of around $20,000 isn’t as large as the burden shouldered by many other borrowers, but, he said, his difficultly finding a college-level job in the U.S. has made that debt oppressive nonetheless. “If you’re not making a living wage,” he said, ”$20,000 in debt is devastating.” He struggled to come up with the $300 a month he owed upon graduation. The first work he found after he left the University of Northern Colorado in 2011 — when the recession’s effects were still palpable — was on-again, off-again hours at a factory, unloading trucks and constructing toy rockets on an assembly line. He then went back to school to pursue a master’s degree in comparative literature at the University of Colorado Boulder. After that, he tried to make it as an adjunct professor, but still he could barely scrape a living together with the one class a semester he was assigned.
Adjusting to a new country, he admitted, has not been entirely easy. “Some toilets here are holes in the ground you squat over,” Haag said. Recently, he ate spoiled goat meat at a local restaurant and landed in the emergency room. Still, he said, “I have a higher standard of living in a Third World country than I would in America, because of my student loans.”
Chad Albright attended Millersville University, in Pennsylvania, where he studied communications and history. He graduated as the Great Recession was beginning in December 2007, and couldn’t find anyone to hire him in his chosen field. “I went to interview after interview after interview,” Albright, 39, said. Still, he had $30,000 in student loans and was soon faced with a monthly bill of around $400. Unable to support himself, he moved in with his parents in Lancaster and worked as a pizza deliveryman. “There was anger,” Albright said. “I couldn’t believe I couldn’t find a job in America.”
Albright’s credit score tanked as a result of his repayment troubles, making it difficult for him to buy a car and to land certain jobs, since some employers now pull credit reports. “I feel that college ruined my life,” Albright said.
Seeing no future for himself in the United States, he decided to move to China in 2011. In the city of Zhongshan, he discovered he loved teaching students English. Unlike when he was delivering greasy boxes of pizza, he found his work meaningful and fulfilling. Though he earned just around $1,000 a month in China, the school where he was teaching covered most of his rent and the cost of living was much lower than in Pennsylvania. A few years later, Albright moved to Ukraine, where he is now a permanent resident. He first taught in Kiev and now does so in Odessa, a port city on the Black Sea. He has no plans to return to the United States. “I am much happier in Ukraine,” he said, adding that he hasn’t checked his student loan account in nearly eight years.
[The] fact that people are taking this drastic measure should bring scrutiny to the larger student loan system, said Alan Collinge, founder of Student Loan Justice. “Any rational person who learns that people are fleeing the country as a result of their student loan debt will conclude that something has gone horribly awry with this lending system,” Collinge said.
But wait - wasn't the very purpose of Obama socializing the student-loan system to make it work? Is it actually possible that Obama screwed up the student loan system, much like he screwed up our health insurance market?
Again: don't go to college unless you are determined to make it work no matter what. If you are scared of the debt burden, don't go to college. Get into a trade. Work hard, learn the skills, be productive and show that you can add value.
And those are the real key words here: add value. Define what difference you make, a difference people are willing to pay for, and you will get there. But you have to do the work.