Student Loan Debt vs. Vocations

“Sorry guys, I won’t be eating dinner with you next week. I’m doing a live-in at the Marianist Sisters’ house.” One of my best friends I had met during my first year at college was very open with us about her discernment of religious life. In the moments after she made this announcement to the five of us who ate dinner together every night, several thoughts came into mind. Who are the Marianist sisters? Do they wear habits? I wonder if any of them are young. I looked around the table at people’s plates, seeing remnants of dried out chicken fingers, watery spaghetti, greasy french fries. I bet they have good food…

I had never seriously considered religious life before I went to college. I say not seriously because I do remember telling a friend in high school that I could see myself being a nun, but only when I got old and if I never married anyone. It wasn’t a serious notion, at that time anyway.

As a freshman in college, I felt like my entire life was ahead of me, and I spent a great deal of time considering all of life’s possibilities. Maybe religious life was one of them? “Do the sisters have any more room available for the live-in?” I asked. It turned out they did. So my first introduction to religious life was living with the Marianist Sisters for one week, getting a first-hand look at community life. We prayed together, ate meals together, played games, and stayed up late talking about people’s vocation stories. I found out that these sisters don’t wear habits. Some of them are young. And they do have good food. But before I noticed those things, what struck me first and foremost was their faithfulness to the Gospel and to their joyful commitment to community living. These are the reasons why, six years later, I am joining their congregation.

It’s no secret that religious life is undergoing a change. We tend to focus on the negatives of this change, how communities are smaller, and grayer, than they used to be, how many congregations are unable to support their institutions, while novitiates that used to be full now lie empty. This leads some to conclude that religious life is dead, or dying.

That’s what some people see. Now, here’s what I see: I see congregations, now smaller in number, becoming more creative in how they evangelize and maintain their charism by partnering with lay people, sharing with them their charism and mission. I see different congregations collaborating together in vocations ministries, religious formation programs (for example, inter-community novitiates), and apostalates. I see congregations more open to listening to the needs of the world, especially to the young and the poor, and seeing how they might meet those needs. Religious life is not dead. It is being renewed.

Here’s what else I see: thousands of milennials, alienated by society’s false promises of wealth and luxury, wanting to live their faith in a radical way. Some of them are attracted to lay movements like Regnum Christi or Catholic Worker Communities. But many of them are increasingly attracted to religious life. I personally know dozens of Milennial men and women who have actively discerned religious life, quite a few of whom are entering communities. Other religious men and women are noticing this shift as well.

Something most people don’t know, however, is that many of these milennials who would like to join religious life have student loan debt that prevents them from pursuing a vocation. Since communities are smaller than they used to be, and since religious congregations aren’t usually wealthy, most congregations cannot afford to assume a candidate’s debt. We can’t know for sure how many people have been turned away from a congregation because of their debt, but a recent CARA study suggests that 42% of those who would like to pursue a religious vocation are prevented from doing so because of debt. We as a Church have been praying for vocations to religious life for decades, but how many of us know that such an obstacle exists?

I never knew. I went all throughout college, my discernment growing deeper and more intentional, without knowing that this one thing would prevent me from becoming a Marianist Sister. Like most milennials, especially those that have attended private, Catholic universities, I graduated with a great deal of student loan debt. Before graduating from college, when I began considering the option of applying to their congregation, I found out the sisters would not be able to assume my loans. I was devastated.

If we are going to continue encouraging young people to consider religious life (and we should!), and if milennials and other generations after us continue to actively discern this life, then we must find a solution to the problem of student loans deterring vocations. Some organizations, such as the Mater Ecclesia Fund for Vocations and the Laboure Society, have started to work towards solving this problem. But they need help.

The good thing is that as Christians, we are a people of hope, and this situation is far from hopeless. There are things you can do to help. You can pray for vocations and for those who face this obstacle. You can tell others about this problem–too few people know how much student loans deter vocations, and raising awareness about important issues is always helpful. You can also consider donating to organizations such as the Laboure Society that make loan payments for men and women while they are in formation, allowing them the freedom to discern without having to worry about making their monthly payments.

We are living during an exciting time, both for religious life and for the Church. I am blessed to be a small part of the movement that is sweeping religious life. And I am hopeful that many others will join me.

Gabby Bibeau works in parish ministry in urban Dayton while fundraising for the Laboure Society to alleviate her loan debt before entering formation with the Marianist Sisters. For more information about the Marianists, vocations, or student debt, feel free to contact her at



Student Debt is a Crushing Problem for Millennials

The burden of student debt is a crushing problem for the millennial generation.  This should be stating the obvious, as total student debt has surpassed one trillion dollars.  Countless articles and blog posts have been written about the problem and thousands of speeches call for a solution to end the crisis, but the problem has no obvious remedy or foreseeable ending.

Why does this matter? Because college matters—and not just for the impact it has on economic growth. There are many valid (and perhaps not-so-valid) reasons why so many people go to college, beyond the simple belief that a college degree is necessary to get a good job. Perhaps it’s to live and play in a beautiful city.  Perhaps it’s to meet a new and diverse group of people who can help to shape your worldview.  Yet many college students would also like to be able to get an excellent job one day and be able to earn enough money to send their kids to the same institutions that perhaps left them with over $50,000 in college debt.

And that last desire, fellow millennials, is the problem.  Many of us have children, or, at least, many of us plan on having children, and we will have to pay to send our children to college—the same institutions that have led us to accumulate over one-trillion dollars in student loan debt.  Can we afford it?  Most of us want to help our kids get college degrees, as we understand that attending college is about more than just earning a degree; however, escalating costs and the burden of massive debt have us worried.

In 1992 Admiral James Stockdale in the Vice-Presidential Debate introduced himself by uncomfortably posing the questions “Who am I?  Why am I here?”  His questions and the delivery of his subsequent response became one of the most cringe-worthy moments in American campaign history. But in fact, the much-maligned Stockdale had introduced himself to the American public with some of the deepest questions of Western culture—the very same questions Socrates admonishes all Athenians to ask, lest one lead an “unexamined life,’ which would be “not worth living.”  “Know thyself,” the phrase inscribed upon the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, is also the special imperative of a journey through college.

We were challenged by our professors to think critically about real world issues. They prodded us with questions that were directed at helping us think through what we believed and why.  Figuring out what we believed was the first step in finding out who we were and why we were at the university.  By offering my own ideas, I discovered how the beliefs that I held had a long and rich history, and in sharing my ideas, I joined a conversation that was at once centuries old and brand new.

As a first-generation American (the son and grandson of Italian immigrants), I arrived at college with a set of values that was different from others’ around the campus. But many others experienced the same rewards of a college education that defined my time in those years. We became both teachers and learners; we exchanged ideas with those from widely different backgrounds and learned about our various backgrounds, histories, cultures—and saw glimpses of our true selves.  I learned that I am both an individual and also part of a world that needs each and every one of us to participate, to comment, to ask, like Socrates did, who we are and why we are here.  Much like St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions, sharing that he could not fully understand himself unless he searched for God and Truth, the search for ourselves is a journey.

We want our children to be able to experience the same journey that we traveled.  However, with the average tuition, room and board at over $22,000 per year (and rising!), with public universities increasing tuition by 27% per year, with The University of California system increasing tuition by over 70% in just over 7 years, and with median family income stuck in neutral, how can we pay for our children to go to college?  We have learned the hard way that the system of accumulating student debt is not sustainable.  We do not want to burden our children with the same debts that we face today.

What is the solution?  How can we expect to send our children to college?  Some have simply said that they won’t.  The new mantra is that “college isn’t for everyone.”  Yet, as Catholics, we have come to value the role that universities play in the development of the whole human person, the critical role this education has in allowing each of us to move toward our full potential as a person.  The solution is not slashing university budgets and increasing tuition, as many states have started doing.  The solution is not to dramatically cut federal student loan programs and Pell grants.

Part of the solution is for our federal and state governments to reinvest in our public universities; while many private universities have increased spending on students, public universities have spent less.  Public universities increase tuition, in part, because of decreased taxpayer support.  This is not entirely the fault of government; blame also falls on citizens who have neglected our university systems in order to have short-term benefits like reduced tax rates (see prop 13 in California as a prime example).

Another critical part of the solution is for universities to cut back on administrative costs.  As dollars spent on students decrease, the cost of administrative salaries (and administration in general), has increased substantially.  Instead of reinvesting increased tuition into student education, higher administrative costs are absorbing that new revenue.  It is one thing to increase tuition to reinvest this money into educating students, it is another to pay administrative costs with students not seeing much of the increase in tuition going to them.

Obviously these two suggestions do not solve the problem of absurdly high tuition rates.  It will take a combination of a change in the public’s ethos, a strong government push to re-fund our struggling institutions, and a change within the institutions themselves in how they spend their resources for America to really begin to tackle this serious problem and ensure affordable access to a college education.  On the other hand, perhaps the only real solution is to require by law that our elected officials only send their children to public universities.  Perhaps this will get them to stop sleeping on their jobs and get busy trying to find and implement real solutions!

Daniel Petri is a PhD student in Politics at Catholic University and a graduate fellow at the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies.

The Walking Debt: Expanded Look at Zombie Debt, Jubilee & Students

Are you prepared for the invasion of Zombie debt? Everyone knows there is a foreclosure crisis – but are we prepared for the unfolding crises of education and medical debt?

In his recent NY Times blog, Student Debt and the Crushing of the American Dream, economist Joseph Stiglitz notes some astounding facts:

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, almost 13 percent of student-loan borrowers of all ages owe more than $50,000, and nearly 4 percent owe more than $100,000. These debts are beyond students’ ability to repay, (especially in our nearly jobless recovery); this is demonstrated by the fact that delinquency and default rates are soaring. Some 17 percent of student-loan borrowers were 90 days or more behind in payments at the end of 2012. When only those in repayment were counted — in other words, not including borrowers who were in loan deferment or forbearance — more than 30 percent were 90 days or more behind. For federal loans taken out in the 2009 fiscal year, three-year default rates exceeded 13 percent.”

The high cost of higher education, interest rates, laws governing student loans that make them ineligible for bankruptcy and other debt relief programs, and relatively high unemployment all contribute to lowering economic and social opportunity/mobility.

Contributing to the crisis are predatory practices by for-profit colleges, with high default and low graduation rates. However, default rates are only one aspect of the student debt problem; we must also contend with the broader economic reality. Increased student debt and higher unemployment lowers consumption, and in a consumer economy, this creates a circular problem. Stiglitz’s main point is that the looming student debt crisis is not a failure of students, it is a failure of our public commitment to education and social mobility (something he has written about extensively).

Despite this, there is still clear“value added” by a college degree. Stiglitz notes the numbers:

“College graduates earn $12,000 more per year than those without college degrees; the gap has almost tripled just since 1980. Our economy is increasingly reliant on knowledge-related industries. No matter what happens with currency wars and trade balances, the United States is not going to return to making textiles. Unemployment rates among college graduates are much lower than among those with only a high school diploma.”

So a college degree is still clearly a good investment.  However, one can no longer afford to ignore the questions of how much debt one can or should take on in pursuing a bachelors, masters, law or medical degree. The options one has upon graduation are constrained by the level of debt one has accumulated.

~A college graduate with a full time job may no longer be able to afford to live on his or her own. Even living with roommates may be outside of reach, given anxiety concerning student debt.  More and more young adults are moving back home with their parents after graduation because they cannot afford both rent and student loan payments (this is especially true of graduates who have only been able to find part time work, due to high youth unemployment). Many young adults are intentionally delaying marriage and children because of student loans. Whether that is smart or not, it is the growing reality.

~Our society has plenty of graduates in the legal, medical, and other professional fields, and yet we cannot fill these positions in low income communities.  High student debt contributes to our inability to get teachers, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals in these communities. Few go into general medicine because, in part, paying off loans is easier in high cost specialties. (Money-Driven Medicine is an excellent POV documentary on this).

~ Many young college graduates will opt for a year or two of volunteer work. However, student debt provides an intimidating barrier to graduates who hope to pursue a career dedicated to social welfare.  Those hoping to work in Catholic schools, as a social worker, as a community organizer, or for a non-profit  can’t unless they have been fortunate enough to have very little or no student loan debt. These jobs, which are so important, do not pay enough to allow an independent adult to pay back the loans.

There is a structural injustice at the root of this problem. Banking fraud and illegal foreclosures continue (without any real threat of punishment).  A culture of fraud extends beyond the foreclosure crisis into medical and education debt. (On the education side, this fraud is perpetuated by for-profit institutions with high loans, low graduation/completion rates, and high probability of default).  This structural injustice lies in stark contrast to the biblical jubilee and justice tradition, which calls for the forgiveness of debts.

Invoking the biblical tradition, a group of people are fighting back. Rolling Jubilee by Strike Debt continues its campaign to cancel the debts of individuals by linking the jubilee traditions in Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

“Strike Debt is an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street. First started in New York City, but inspired by movements around the globe, Strike Debt now has affiliates across the country. We believe people should not go into debt for basic necessities like education, healthcare and housing.”

Beginning with medical and housing debt, Strike Debt buys individual debt and cancels or “forgives the debt.” How do they do this?

What most people do not know is that defaulted debt is sold on a secondary market – bundled together and sold at auction.

“Banks sell debt for pennies on the dollar on a shadowy speculative market of debt buyers who then turn around and try to collect the full amount from debtors. The Rolling Jubilee intervenes by buying debt, keeping it out of the hands of collectors, and then abolishing it. We’re going into this market not to make a profit but to help each other out and highlight how the predatory debt system affects our families and communities. Think of it as a bailout of the 99% by the 99%”

In many of these cases, the patients are haunted by Zombie Debtor debts they thought were paid off.

“Logsdon, the first of those debtors to publicly identify herself, said she thought her delinquent $983 bill for back pain care had been paid by Medicare last year. That’s what her doctor told her, she said, after a 2011 dispute during which the bill had gone to a collection agency.”

Strike Debt has forgiven 1.1 million in medical loans and they are now investigating ways they can buy and cancel student loans. Federally backed student loans do not get sold on a secondary market, but an increasing number of defaulted private loans are making their way to the secondary market.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus stands up and reads from Isaiah and explains his purpose:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” (Luke 4:16-19)

Deeply embedded in the Biblical tradition is the concept of Jubilee – what does it mean to set people free and proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord?

The Jubilee tradition understands biblical justice to include the forgiveness of debts. Rolling Jubilee is following the legacy of Jubilee 2000. During the Millennium, Pope John Paul II, Bono and others mobilized the world around the Jubilee 2000 Campaign and the forgiveness of crippling loans to developing countries. While the fight for debt relief for developing countries goes on, it has already accomplished a lot of good for the citizens of developing countries by freeing up money for investment in public goods.  Jubilee is necessary to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. There is strong theological support for Rolling Jubilee’s forgiveness of medical debt and perhaps it is time to call for a Jubilee for student debt as well.

Imagine, for example, if we as a nation made a public commitment to double the number of public defenders? Or provide significant loan forgiveness for those who work for Legal Aid? If we put into practice the medical school loan forgiveness ideas President Obama mentioned back at the beginning of the healthcare reform debate – and did it on a large scale to reward doctors who serve in underserved areas? And, given the manipulation and structural injustice, what if we provided for loan forgiveness for those taken advantage of by for-profit higher education? All of these would lessen the burden on young adults, allow for social mobility, and provide significant contributions to the common good. The real question is: Do we have the public will to do so? And as Christians, we must remember that setting the captives free is a pre-req for proclaiming a year acceptable to the Lord.