What are you entitled to?

A few months ago, when I finished the News Cut on Campus “tour,” I wrote this piece: Optimism, pessimissm, and the college graduate.

A writer I very much admire, Lane Wallace of The Atlantic, wrote about that piece today on her online column.


Perhaps Minnesotans are particularly good at accepting life in all its uncertainty and challenge. This is a place, after all, where it’s been known to snow in every month of the year, and people have to shovel their roofs as well as their walks. I’m not kidding. I’ve done it, myself. If you want an easy ride in life, with palm trees and year-round sunshine, you don’t settle in Minnesota. But whatever the reason, Collins’ advice is a valuable reality check–not only on the current economic situation, but on how all of us, media included, can or should respond to it.

But it was a comment from — I presume — a young ‘un that got my attention:


Sure the challenges of adulthood are nothing new, but who over 50 graduated college with $50k in student loans and credit card debt? When you’re starting out with that kind of burden, never mind the recession, of course there’s anxiety. It has nothing to do with the abstract future or achieving your dreams. It’s the present, and working for $110 a week or its modern-day equivalent won’t cut it. Collins’ advice and this post basically ignore that for a lot of recent graduates, there’s no time not to be conservative and risk averse. But if you’re 50, established and debt-free, well I guess it’s fair to look back and wonder if you could have been more care-free, too.

.. and so I responded…


Let’s do the math on that. Let’s see, I graduated (1976) with $4,000 in debt and a job that paid $5,720 a year. My debt was 69% of my annual salary.

The average student loan debt last year was not, in fact, $50,000, it was $21,899. The average income for graduating seniors in 2007 was $60,000 $46,000, making the total debt 36.5% 47.6% of annual salary.

Are there exceptions? Of course there are. But my point is a simple one to today’s kids: You’re not the exception you think you are. It’s the last thing you will likely learn as part of your college education: Some people do know what they’re talking about. The best way to get ahead of the game, is to listen.

But you’re right, $110 in today’s dollars — which would be $400 a week — isn’t going to cut it. But here’s what you don’t understand: It didn’t cut it then, either.

That’s the point: We weren’t entitled then. You’re not entitled now.

Go forth, work hard, experience life. Make yourself special.

Graduating seniors: What are you expecting the world owes you starting next month?

  • JSmith

    I can’t say I know many college graduates making that much, in fact I would say 35-45K is more likely. And why are you using averages and not medians?

    Also are you factoring in cost of living differences when figuring out the burden?

  • Bob Collins

    //Also are you factoring in cost of living differences when figuring out the burden?

    No, but that’s a slippery slope as the definition of “necessities” has changed. Some people think high-speed Internet and a $100 a month data plan for the iPod are necessities now. So I’m not sure how that gets factored into a comparison.

    The person who took issue with the original assertion made his case based on the crushing burden of student loans. While they may be crushing, they aren’t more crushing than they were in 1976 (not long before, by the way, home mortgage rates reached 14%, gasoline hit $1 a gallon – if you could get it).

    Obviously the debt is more for advanced degrees. Alas, I’m but a simple average four year college grad, so I can’t compare my experience with the lofty education levels of today. But I suspect the size of the load is somewhat proportional to one’s expected salary.

    Most people my age who are parents have spent our children’s lifetime telling them they were special. I think the first thing graduating college seniors learn is we lied. (g)

  • Elizabeth T

    I’m in grad school & very very lucky to be on a full ride scholarship. My classmates from the other programs in our department bemoan the cost of school (I would too). We are almost uniformly older & returning to school from the work place.

    The problems many of us face are either

    a) we’ve still got student debt from our undergrad degree

    – or –

    b) we’re parents & have different financial obligations on top of school.

    (e.g., Day care for my 2 kids is greater than a full-time MPH student in the School of Public Health.)

    People need to realize that, despite the rosy pictures of “plan your own personalized degree” or “study the wonders of the obscure” – money to pay for school is either based upon need or your professional choice. If you really want to get out of school without a huge debt load, then students need to make other choices.

    Choose a different major. Choose to work more and study longer. Choose a different school with lower tuition.

    And, yes, this is a situation where a median is better than an average, to avoid places like the Ivy League or Joe’s Diploma Mill skewing the picture.

  • Bob Collins

    One of the things I noticed on NC on C was the number of people who were taking generals at a MnSCU school and then transferring to the U. At the risk of diverting the thread to a “ways of paying for college thread,” what is it about, say, the U’s general courses that make them cost twice what a MnSCU school does.

    We chatted about this in another thread earlier and it seemed that the answer was that students are actually paying for the unrelated expenses elsewhere at the university.

    Do prospective students research that?

  • http://minnesota.publicradio.org Ken Paulman

    Bob, your $5,720 a year job is equivalent to about $21,000 a year today (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator).

    I haven’t found any immediate data on college costs in the 1970s, but since they’ve increased at roughly twice the rate of inflation, we can extrapolate that the average debt load at that time should be equivalent to about $2,900.

    According to this report, the average income for college graduates in 1976 was about $7,800, making the “average” debt-to-income ratio in 1976 closer to 37%.

    That’s quite a bit less than the 47% ratio today, and we haven’t even started talking about the costs of housing and health care, both of which have also risen far faster than inflation as well. Or that in the 1970s, a greater proportion of student financial aid came in the form of federal loans or grants, versus higher-interest loans from private lenders.

    These are back-of-the-envelope calculations, and I welcome someone with better figures to correct me, but the point is that when the Kids These Days (am I still in that group?) complain about financial burdens, they might just have a point worth listening to.

  • Bob Collins

    But we’r enot talking about going TO college so whether the cost of going to college has increased or not is irrelevant. We’re talking about LEAVING college and the burdens one takes with them, and whether it’s significantly more than previous generations. It’s not.

    We also know that MORE people are going to college today than in previous years and we also know that more parents are in a position to help financially than in previous years.

    Look, we can twist things around any which way to try to reach a conclusion that today’s kids are somehow different than yesterday’s kids and that the old rules don’t apply.

    But they DO apply. You start out poor, you get a job, you work your rear end off and you succeed or you don’t.

    It’s inaccurate to suggest that I’m suggesting kids today don’t have financial burdens or that I don’t listen to it. The fact I wrote the piece says I do.

    The notion that this is the first generation to approach adulthood with significant challenges is simply incorrect, and it would be tragic — though not groundbreaking — if senior leave school this month believing that, because in many cases they won’t be able to acknowledge the value of their own parents in getting them successfully to this point in their lives (I realize not everyone has good parents, I’m generalizing here).

    What may actually be different now, however, is the sacrifice/achievement ratio.

    The question I asked that nobody has answered is what do you think you’re entitled to? What do you expect and what is your timetable for that? What are you willing to sacrifice?

  • Joey

    To be fair, you may have been atypical, Bob. College graduates in 1977 (I couldn’t find data for 1976) had an average debt of $2,700 and an average starting salary of $11,500, making their debt about 23% of annual wages. (http://tr.im/kPYd, p. 10).

    Personally, I’m sitting on $42,500 in debt and making about $20,000 a year, for 212%. Anecdotally, I’m not that far off from my peers. My guess is there’s a pretty wide standard deviation on these figures.

    I’ve commented on this elsewhere, that the same sense of human entitlement that causes recent college graduates to feel cheated by their actual job prospects also causes them to work furiously for positive social change. Whether or not it’s a realistic perspective, it’s not an entirely bad one.

  • Bob Collins

    I think that gets back to the original premise of Lane’s article. My suspicion, though, Joey, is that you’re not working furiously for positive social change because your job prospects stink so much (the unemployment rate in 1976 was about 7.8 percent, compared to the one announced today which I think is 8.9%) as you’re working for positive social change because that’s who you are and those are your values.

    I think that’s a terrific roadmap.

    By the way, I wonder how many grads are aware — I suspect plenty of them — that some government-backed loans can be deferred and/or canceled?

    Can I ask what you majored in in college and what you’re doing now?

  • Joey

    I got my BA in Mathematics from the University of Minnesota, Morris in 2007. I was in Teach For America for a while, then construction, and right now I’m… unemployed.

    What I meant was that those values are influenced by a sense of basic human entitlement for everybody, myself included. To be more specific, and to answer your original question, I feel like people deserve the opportunity to work under tolerable conditions (e.g. nonthreatening) and live modestly. That includes access to education and health care.

    Mind you, I’m talking about my emotions, not my understanding of the way the world works. Personally, I’m with Hobbes on life being nasty, brutish, and short; I’m just really upset about the situation.

  • http://minnesota.publicradio.org Ken Paulman

    Bob, I realize that part of the problem is that 20-somethings today spend a lot of money on cars, drugs and rock concerts, whereas the Baby Boomers eschewed such frivoloties and instead opted to spend their time shuttered away in their Victorian boarding houses reading de Tocqueville by candlelight.

    My point is that you can’t use anecdotal evidence to divine long-term trends. When college graduates complain of being stuck in a hole financially, it may be because they have unreasonable expectations and have spent their money foolishly. Or, it may be because the costs of education, housing and health care – the biggest expenditures any household will face – have increased dramatically compared to wages over the last 30 years, and they really are stuck in a hole that wasn’t of their own making.

    Remember, in the good ol’ days, you didn’t necessarily need a college degree to make a living. Those days are long gone.

    For every case of misplaced idealism you can find (another recent invention that was , of course, unknown to the Boomers), I can find someone who desperately needs a college education to provide for themselves or their family, but can’t afford it.

    The players may be different, but so is the playing field.

  • kennedy

    I’m sure there are plenty of anecdotes from people outside the averages. While I feel for graduates with unusually high debt loads and low incomes, I also feel for my unemployed neighbor who has a mortgage to pay and a family to feed.

    The point of the original question, as I understand it, is to ask what graduates feel entitled to. Most of us are not special or unique, yet feel we deserve better than we get. I certainly did.

    Graduates, understand that it will rain on your parade. It is not unfair or unusual. Get over yourself, go do some work and maybe you will achieve something amazing.

  • Bob Collins

    //Remember, in the good ol’ days, you didn’t necessarily need a college degree to make a living.

    If what you say is true, then there’s really no need to have speakers at the coming commencements. Students should not need to listen to the advice being given because it doesn’t apply to them.

    First, I can show you people now who didn’t go to college who are making a great living — Silicon Valley for one, in many cases. Second, and for the record, a lot of people in my generation went to college to hide out from the draft. Oh, right, the draft… yes, we had it pretty darned good back then, I tell ya! (g)

    Anecdotal discussion is entirely appropriate because that’s how life is lived, not as median or an average, but as an individual; each a separate story. To throw up one’s hands and say “that’s easy for you to say, but I’m living in the mean” is illogical. Some people have opportunities; some people don’t. Some of today’s graduates will succeed; some will not. What leads some people to succeed and some people to fail. Attitude? Opportunities? Institutional oppression?

    What people are trying to tell you, however, is what we as a society experienced at the same point, rather than respond “no you didn’t”, seek the information that parents and grandparents have to share.

    The respondent to Lane’s piece suggested a conspiracy of the times that prevents him the luxury of anything BUT struggling to make a living. I’m saying that’s utter nonsense.

    What Lane is trying to say is that you should not define your life by how you make your living.

    Trust me: Thirty years from now, this will make sense. The only question is whether you will have lived your life, or wasted your time.

    And by then, you will probably also have suffered through the first visit home from college by one of your children. That moment, as my parents said to me, is called “payback.”

  • http://minnesota.publicradio.org Ken Paulman

    Information from my parents and grandparents (even the in-laws) indicate that my parents’ generation had a much easier time, generally, making a living than my generation. Although personally, we had some pretty lean years during the farm crisis of the ’80s.

    My grandparents, on both sides, had a much tougher time. They’re the ones that get to lecture me on how easy I’ve got it.

  • Bob Collins

    My lecture from my father was very short. Shortly after college we were driving around our town and I was telling him how difficult it was to get a job and how I really didn’t have opportunities to make a living and have some job security.

    He pulled over, turned to me and said, “You want security, kid? Join the Army.” And then we continued on our way and that was the end of the conversation.

    I always thought if I ever were invited to give a commencement speech, I would give that one and then sit down.

    But to follow up: How easy — or not — do you have it?

  • tiredboomer

    Joey wrote: //…College graduates in 1977 (I couldn’t find data for 1976) had an average debt of $2,700 and an average starting salary of $11,500, making their debt about 23% of annual wages. (http://tr.im/kPYd, p. 10).//

    I graduated college in December 1976, started my first full time job in January 1977. There is absolutely no-way the average, mean OR median starting salary for college graduates was as high as $11,500.

  • http://norwegianity.wordpress.com Mark Gisleson

    Bob, I think you’re having trouble seeing all the reasons why you can’t compare your situation with that of today’s students. You had the promise of a career path; not so today. Your tuition costs were vastly more tax-subsidized than the tuitions of today. While there were big differences in starting pay levels in your day, today those differences are astronomical. The same amount of college can get you a $50-60k + job or a $22k job. No difference in tuition, btw.

    You also had a job market to enter. Where’s the job market for new grads now? The marketplace didn’t create the job market you benefited from: government policies did, just as government policies have saddled today’s kids with higher debt, lower wages (please do the COLAs and throw out the investment bankers from the mix), worse prospects, more uncertainty and — worst of all — the prospect of having to work for a Baby Boomer like me or Bob Collins, ; )

    Here’s some math for you. In 1976 when you took that newspaper job for $5720/yr, I was in my third year as a production worker for Firestone and I was making considerably more than twice what you were. Not bad for a college drop out, eh? Sure, some drawbacks but nothing happened to me in the ’80s that isn’t happening to your profession today.

    The real bottom line then was as it is now: the entire game is rigged to benefit the richest 10% and their kids. No matter which rules are used, the process is still gamed and the results are still the same. The only sure-fire way to predict a child’s success in this country is to look to see who his/her parents are. Everything else is just a distraction from the fact that the very rich are ripping us all off on a daily basis, and yes that includes all the money that disappeared from your retirement fund, and all the certainty that disappeared from the job market.

    We get what they give us. Free will disappeared from this equation a long time ago.

  • http://norwegianity.wordpress.com Mark Gisleson

    Sorry, that was long winded.

    Shorter me: That was then, this is now.

  • Bob Collins

    //Here’s some math for you. In 1976 when you took that newspaper job for $5720/yr, I was in my third year as a production worker for Firestone and I was making considerably more than twice what you were. Not bad for a college drop out, eh? Sure, some drawbacks but nothing happened to me in the ’80s that isn’t happening to your profession today.

    I was a 6-day-a-week disc jockey in a cruddy little radio station. And now that I think of it, I got the job in 1977. You couldn’t get a job in journalism coming out of school then because — thanks to Woodward and Bernstein — everyone wanted to get into journalism.

    Back then, you had to go off to some small town somewhere to break into your chosen field.

    Compare that to now. What few journalism students I’ve met all talk about going to work in New York or Minneapolis upon graduation.

    Meanwhile, I’ve been laid off in the business three times (knocking on wood here) and the business just didn’t start collapsing last week. Radio stations, my chosen field, started disappearing about the time tire plants did.

    We can go on and on about who had it tougher but that misses the point. It isn’t about who had it tougher, it’s about what you’re going to do about it and how to approach their coming adulthood.

    There have always been winners and losers and while I see the merit of your argument, I don’t know that it really is possible to predict a child’s success or failure because in many cases we don’t define what “success” means. At this reflective time of commencements, I’m interested in how people define that.

    Which brings us back to the original questions: What do you (not you, you old foggie (g)) want? What do you expect?

    If folks are just throwing up their hands and saying it can’t happen, why did you (not you, you old foggie) waste money and time on a college education in the first place?

    I’m not sure they are throwing up their hands. As I’ve written numerous times, the students I met in the first two months of the year had what I would consider to be realistic plans, good opportunities, good attitudes, a good balance of living their values, and a willingness to do whatever it takes.

    Maybe one of them should be giving the commencement speech.

    //worst of all — the prospect of having to work for a Baby Boomer like me or Bob Collins, ; )

    My boss is half my age. Top that! (g)

  • http://norwegianity.wordpress.com Mark Gisleson

    Did I get what I was entitled to?

    No. Almost never.

    Because the only thing I ever expected from my employers other than work and pay was respect, and that is one of the rarest commodities in our workplaces today.

    Sometimes I got what I wanted, more often I got what I settled for. But on any job where I did my work well the most important thing for me was the respect of my employer. American employers are not, in my experience, people who respect their employees.

    For respect I had to become a political volunteer and then later I started my own business writing resumes for people who invariably had not had their contributions respected.

    Employers don’t respect resources, they use them.

  • Bob Collins

    I wonder if people would be interested in writing their own commencement speeches. Maybe we could record them and play them on the radio?

  • Elizabeth T

    //our tuition costs were vastly more tax-subsidized than the tuitions of today

    for some reason, I simply can’t envision this as correct. I make this statement in ignorance of statistical matters on it. Simply to point out that ‘subsidy’ is ‘subsidy’, regardless of who’s providing it. In either case – government or commercial enterprise – it is subject to immediate termination.

    Once I get (back) out of college, I think I’m entitled to …

    >I’m entitled to vote. [this is always my #1 on my rights/entitlements]

    >I’m entitled to equal consideration under the law/practice in the pursuit of gainful employment.

    > I’m entitled to live where I want and work doing whatever I can demonstrate competency at.

    >I’m entitled to spend my money the way I want to.

    >I’m entitled to be miserable about my choices. … This means you’re entitled to be unsympathetic to that misery. [choice being the operative word here]

  • kennedy

    I haven’t seen much input from students, only the older generation sympathizing with their plight and/or bemoaning the downfall of the relationships between businesses and employees.

    Yes, business and the marketplace is different today than it was 30 years ago, just as 30 years ago was different from 60 years ago. I suspect that, as always, the flexible thinking and creativity of youth will allow those with a solid work ethic to adapt and succeed. Success is not guaranteed, it does not mean effortless reward, and it’s definition varies among individuals.

  • Bob Collins

    Elizabeth, if everything fell into place, what would you like to be doing when you get out of school? Who knows, maybe the right person is reading this thread.

  • http://norwegianity.wordpress.com Mark Gisleson

    Elizabeth T: when I went to Iowa State in 1971 tuition was $200 a quarter ($600 a school year). I can’t imagine any COLA adjustment that could turn that into anything like today’s tuition costs.

    When I was young it was government policy to make college affordable. Under Reagan tuition started going up because they were trying to cut the cost of government. Simply put, our government no longer invests in this country or its people, and by restricting higher education to the affluent or scholarship worthy the right has pulled off a massive feat of social reengineering.

    And yes, as an American I believe I am entitled to affordable higher education at state universities.

  • http://norwegianity.wordpress.com Mark Gisleson

    I got curious and looked it up. $200 in 1971 dollars is slightly more than $1000 now, or $3,150 for one school year. The UM currently charges $8,500 a school year, and I’m sure both IA State and the UM have competitive tuition rates.

  • momkat

    Way back in 1963, I was graduated by the U of M with a BA in English. I attended a private school in Iowa the first 2 years, paid for by my parents, a truck farmer and a housewife. I worked parttime for pocket change. I spent my last two years at the U, working parttime again. I was able to totally pay my own way my senior year working 16 hours a week washing syringes at the U of M hospital. After graduation I finally found a clerical job at Honeywell for $305/month, the $5 was for my 4-year degree.

    Has anything changed since then?

  • Anonymous

    As someone pointed out, “embracing freedom” for the sake of it is rather different from identifying and taking calculating “entrepreneurial risks.”

    Probably the best piece of wisdom above is that some people succeed in life, while others do not. Also, that if you want security, join the army. That’s good too. Where I live, it’s like becoming a teacher for the pension.

    But I’m not a teacher. And knowing that I need to work hard in life doesn’t necessarily help me become one of those people who succeed in life, who don’t get crushed. Plenty of smart, hard-working people get crushed.

    Honestly, at this point, I don’t feel entitled to anything. Life should be different, but it’s not. This is America, not Denmark or a Gulf petro-monarchy.

    Mr. Collins: You started in radio. Decades later, you remain a working journalist. Let’s say that I want to work in media, clear my student debt, avoid taking on more debt, buy a house one day, and make the world a better place, as journalists sometimes do. Let’s say I’ve freelanced some, won a couple nice awards, but don’t expect a salaried job in this climate and so far have failed to make a decent living on my own, so am thinking about working in PR.

    What should I do?

    Younger people don’t think that older people are stupid and will listen to what they have to say, but do react poorly to the notion that older people are automatically wiser.

  • Bob Collins

    Right. I’m not saying older people are automatically wiser because they’re old, I’m saying that on the question of whether striking out on one’s own after college has been equally fraught with peril in the past, we are, almost by definition.

    I was referring primarily to the person who commented on the Atlantic site who said my points weren’t valid because things are different now. Only one of us was there then AND now.

    I’m not a PR specialist, Anonymous, but I would make contacts on Twitter with PR folks and make appointments to go see them IF you’re convinced that’s what you want to do. If it’s a fallback career and it’s not what you really want to do, then we need to talk about that.

    Why don’t you drop me an email and maybe we can have a cup of coffee and go over where you are, where you are, where you want to be, and maybe I can come up with some more ideas.