Millennials and their problems are issues that often come up on my radio show. This past week, I addressed the comments of Tim Gurner, Australian real estate mogul. Speaking to Australia's 60 Minutes, he said that when he was buying his first home, he "wasn't buying smashed avocado for $19 and four coffees at $4 each." He further went on to say this about millennials: "They want to eat out every day. They want to travel to Europe every year. The people that own homes today worked very, very hard for it (and) saved every dollar, did everything they could to get up the property investment ladder."
It's easy to use this guy as a colorful observer of the flaws of millennials in the ongoing debate about their issues. However, I talked about the $1.3 trillion in student loan debt owed by millennials and others as the game changer that limits them economically and psychologically. It's obvious how crushing debt limits their chances of buying a home, but what does it do psychologically?
The answer came from a millennial caller to my show. Dan Aleksa, age 29 and owner of Motivators Personal Training in Southampton, Pa., who told me he and his wife had $75,000 in student loan debt from Gettysburg College and Temple University, respectively. He told me he was paying off his loan at the minimum required and his wife had deferred payment on hers and, as a result, the moment came when he used the government calculator to determine how much interest he and his wife would end up paying.
He told me that when he saw $55,000 in interest, that broke out of his denial bubble, where he had been spending money on small luxuries rather than get serious and pay down his debt. The good news is that he is closing on his first house soon.
The question is: What needs to be done to ensure that future generations do not go through this financial and psychological squeeze of crushing student loan?
Utah Sen. Mike Lee has introduced the Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act, which would allow states to create their own accreditation system for institutions that want to get federal financial aid. This would remove us from the current system of six regional accrediting institutions that have a bias toward the current college model and prevent many innovations and choices that would dramatically lower the cost of a college education.
In addition to this, high school guidance counselors must be encouraged to have more conversations about the cost of college and the value of leaving college as debt-free as possible. They can also be the driving force to get more career days at schools at the high school and even upper-elementary school level. How many of us clearly knew what we wanted to do career-wise when we were in our teens? This type of early guidance can only help to bring more clarity to the decisions kids make post-high school.
Finally, the value proposition of college and many courses of study must be re-examined. I agree that the college experience is more than just going for four years in career training, but many kids are graduating with degrees that give them little chance to make it in today's economy. If I buy a car, the dealership typically posts the projected annual fuel cost for that car right on the sales sticker. The cost of a college education is probably quadruple the price of a new car. If they take that much money from you, they should do more to inform you what the economic and career prospects are for the fields of study they offer.
A key to lowering debt from a college education is to not accept the $1.3 trillion owed in student loan debt as normal. It's not normal to have generations of students walking around not able to get married and in pretty rapid order buy their first home.
So Gurner, the Australian real estate mogul, can make insulting remarks about millennials and get an audience of people to believe that young people today and their dreams are radically different from past generations. This might feel good but I don't think it's going to coax millions of millennials into new behaviors. I hope the example of my listener Dan might help them get out of the hole they've dug.
As Lee has said in proposing his college cost cutting measure, "Over the past 20 years, the price of wireless service has fallen 46 percent, the price of software has fallen 68 percent … and the quality of these services has improved markedly. The price of college tuition has risen 199 percent, and most parents would agree that the quality has not greatly improved." It's time to change all that.
Teacher-turned-talk show host Dom Giordano is heard 9 a.m. to noon weekdays on WPHT (1210-AM). Contact him at www.domgiordano.com