Here’s Why Student Loan Debt Isn’t the Real Millennial Horror Story

Two-thirds of 25- to 32-year-olds don’t have bachelor’s degrees, which doesn’t bode well for their job prospects or financial well-being.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Oct 10, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

We’ve all heard the terrible tales of millennials struggling in the job market and questioning whether the cash they (and their parents) plunked down for college—and the mountains of student loan debt they accumulated—was worth it. As disappointing as it might be to be living back home with Mom and Dad, those underemployed, degree-holding men and women between the ages of 25 and 32 aren’t the only folks struggling financially. Most of their peers only have a high school diploma, and they’re having an even tougher time making ends meet.

According to a recent Pew Research Center report on the long-term financial downside of not going to college, two-thirds of people in that age group don’t have a college degree. As a result, 21.8 percent of them without a bachelor’s degree are living in poverty. Meanwhile, a comparatively small 5.8 percent of their peers with degrees are impoverished.

“There’s been a lot of attention paid to the adversities facing college-educated millennials, but generally the college-educated young adults, they’re doing better than earlier generations of college-educated young adults,” Richard Fry, the lead researcher on the Pew study, told NPR.

Fry found that millennials with college degress earn about $17,500 more than those with just a high school diploma. Even though student loan debt is greater than America’s total credit card debt, and a job at a local coffee shop isn’t what most grads anticipated, plenty of evidence backs up Fry’s findings that a degree is still the best guarantee of a job and financial stability. A May report from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found that over a college degree holder’s lifetime, he or she is likely to earn significantly more than someone with just a high school diploma—about $830,000 more, on average.

“Although other individual factors might affect the net value of a college education, earning a degree clearly remains a good investment for most young people. Moreover, once that investment is paid off, the extra income from the college earnings premium continues as a net gain to workers with a college degree,” that report’s authors wrote.

Folks who only graduated from high school are also more likely to not have a job at all.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ August 2014 unemployment data revealed that 6 percent of Americans with only high school diplomas are jobless. Only 3.6 percent of Americans with bachelor’s degrees or higher are unemployed.

“Among the less educated, it's not simply that they’re trailing behind their college-educated counterparts; it’s that they’re doing worse off than earlier generations of less educated adults,” Fry said.

That means that if today's millennials without a degree don't find the money and time to go back to school or enroll in job training or vocational courses, they are more likely to be jobless and have fewer financial resources throughout their lifetime.