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The great Ameri-con dream: Our generation is drowning in student debt

Our generation has been burdened with debt we’ll never be able to repay. Is it our fault, or the system’s?

Jennifer White-Johnson

I have $244,000 in debt, and I am drowning in it. I’m successful on paper — I wrote a book, I have my own Wikipedia page, I’ve been a series regular on network TV, and I graduated with a bachelor of fine arts in theater from an acting school, but I’m still in debt.

No one knows this. Not even my parents know how bad it’s become, and they’re co-signers on my loans, along with my uncle. Even an ex was briefly a co-signer (I paid this loan off, thankfully). In total, I have paid approximately $60,000 in interest on these loans – more than the cost of the loans themselves. I owe three times as much as my original loans just in interest.

“Why didn’t you do scholarships?” Most middle-class families in America are not wealthy enough to afford college, but also not broke enough to qualify for financial aid. And I did get some scholarships — I wrote multiple essays, but did they cover my tuition? No.

“Didn’t you read the loan agreement?” Yes, of course I read the 60-page document with my parents and still signed the dotted line. We read about FAFSAs, Pell grants, subsidized and unsubsidized loans, and waded through the maze of repayment options. Why? We believed in the American Dream.

Every enterprise needs cheap labor, grinding until there’s nothing left but ash and dust. How do you get these also-rans to keep laboring? You sell them a dream.

You know the story: “Be the first in your family to go to college and life will be better.” I believed in this story and I went in search of it. In some ways, we have all been conned into believing the dream that an elite education guarantees success. This con is deeply implanted into our psyche to the point where even excessively wealthy and White actors like Lori Loughin will commit fraud to win a rigged admission system for their child to have an education they do not actually need. The con takes us all.

There’s an episode of Seinfeld where George tells his recently-deceased wife’s family that he has a house in the Hamptons when he really doesn’t. Despite being fully aware of the deception, the family decides to go along for a ride to the house. The drive to nowhere happens, despite the family fully knowing it’s a lie.

That is the American Dream. We get in the car to our house in the Hamptons that doesn’t actually exist. Maybe we believe in miracles? Or that a house will appear out of thin air? Or that the lie has gone on so long that we can’t turn back?

I remember crying in the living room when I opened my college acceptance letters because I knew my family could not afford my tuition. Although they struggled for us to be “middle-class” and gain our own slice of the American Dream, I had to borrow multiple 30-year private loans of $37,000 to afford my tuition.

My family was willing to make this sacrifice, however, because they believed in my education. More than anything, they believed in me. My parents wanted me to have what they didn’t have. How many times had society said no to them? Their son would attend college because they couldn’t. He would be an artist, because my dad couldn’t be a radio DJ, clarinet player, or follow his own passions, and my mother couldn’t become a doctor while working two jobs in high school. Where was her time to dream and pursue a higher education?

I was angry when I saw a video of Lori Loughlin’s daughter, whose mother bribed the University of Southern California for half a million, saying, “I don’t really like school, so I’m not excited about going to college.” My parents were excited about getting an education, and they wanted their son to succeed. Despite knowing my artistic journey was an uphill battle, my dreams weren’t stupid to them — this is maybe the greatest gift they gave me. I would hear them late at night whispering, “Maybe our son might actually make it.” They said yes to the loans, when secretly, I wanted them to say no.

After I graduated, I spent the first year or so sleeping in my car. To avoid losing hope or breaking down, I told myself it was an artistic rite of passage. I lived on food stamps, skipped meals, lost weight, prayed for grocery store gift cards, and sampled the build-your-own salad bar at Whole Foods. Every day, I convinced myself that it was worth it. When my mother called me, she asked, “My sunshine, how you doing?”

“Fine,” I said. I became very intimate with the word fine, because it could be worse, it could be better – it was fine.

But she heard the tiredness in my voice. “How are you really doing?,” she asked. I froze. When my mother cried, my dad got on the phone and said, “What do you need? I just won the lotto – for real, this time – what do you need?”

My dad was always telling me about winning the lotto, even though he was just offering financial help. Instead of asking for money, I just said, “Fine.”

Soon, the student loan providers started calling every day, every hour, knocking on my family’s doors, and sending letters asking me to pay $2,000 a month – more than my Los Angeles rent. Despite this, I enrolled in yet more schooling: a low-residency master’s program for Expressive Arts Therapy. This was neither because it was fun nor because I wanted to continue my education; I simply couldn’t afford the monthly student loan payments and needed to buy myself more time. But even ‘in-school deferment’ doesn’t last forever.

Is there enough room at the top? Today, my financial circumstances have changed, but I might be repaying my student loans until the day I die. I am afraid to have children – do I really want to burden them with my debt?

The federal government declared that the birth rate has been in decline for the last decade. It’s almost like a whole generation has been saddled with massive debt, then hit with multiple economic crises. Now they’re afraid to have children in this economy. This fear is exactly what they wanted, right? A fear that immobilizes a young person from any upward movement. If everyone moved up, would there be enough room at the top? Someone has to lose and be the also-ran.

The term comes from horse racing, and is often used in Latinidad circles to say not everybody wins, but you need other horses to run. Society needs the also-rans. American culture believes that not everybody should win; we need some people just to run as the also-rans.

Horseracing at Kempton Park in Sunbury, England, July 6, 2023.Andrew Redington/Getty

Show me an empire not built on the backs of the also-rans. Every enterprise needs cheap labor, grinding until there’s nothing left but ash and dust. How do you get these also-rans to keep laboring? You sell them a dream. A hustle that never ends. You show them winners, and sell them a con that doesn’t exist for anyone.

My story is not mine alone; I am from a generation buried in student loan debt. I have been betrayed by the dream and yet I am one of the lucky ones. I’m keenly aware that I’ve had an exceptionally fortunate professional life: I somehow managed to stay enrolled in school while auditioning and creating. I took as many deferments and forbearances as possible to buy more time, and I played the game the best I could. That’s what the con takes – luck, not hard work.

America is the original pyramid scheme. The dream says, “Work long and hard, and you will be free,” just like the slaves put on the frontline who were promised that if they fought, they would gain their freedom – along with land. But we all know how easily this country takes back its promises.

A loan is just a promise. When I struggled to fulfill that promise, I felt as if I had failed. The anthropologist David Graeber said in his book, Debt: The First 5,000 years, “The language of debt... immediately makes it seem that it’s the victim who’s doing something wrong.”

Not everyone has to repay debt in America. Airlines and Fortune 500 companies get bailed out after taking loans. Former president Barack Obama only paid off his student loans during his second term as president after he wrote his second book. Do I have to become president (twice) to pay off six-figure student loans?

The con is how far we go to pretend the system is okay. For some, it’s a useful con, but for many, it punishes us for believing in it. I went to play the part of a college student, and now I am actively playing the part of a fearful adult who made a poor financial decision and now grapples with six-figure debt at all times.

Let’s just forgive the loans. Oh, is that unfair to all those people who struggled for years to pay back their student loans? Graeber says: “This argument makes about as much sense as saying it would be ‘unfair’ to a mugging victim not to mug their neighbors too.” Again, this notion of “fairness” implies that there is an equal playing field.

Being debt-free opens doors, but remember, America needs the also-rans, who are mostly people of color.

If a young person asks me if they should go to college, I would reply like Maggie Smith in her poem “Good Bones:” “I keep this from my children. I am trying to sell them the world. Any decent realtor, walking you through a real shithole, chirps on about good bones: This place could be beautiful, right? You could make this place beautiful.”

I have a college degree, and it served me well, but I’m not convinced that college is for everyone. There are much cheaper forms of education like trade schools or simply working. I’m not anti-education, I am against the cost of education. I am also against the pressure we put on youth to borrow astronomical sums of money at a young age for degrees that fail to generate jobs. The best path should never be the most expensive, and as long as the government is in the business of lending billions of dollars to young adults, I’m going to question if it’s for their good or simply to keep producing also-rans.

Christopher Rivas is a storyteller, actor, and the author of Brown Enough.