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Sick of Their Debt

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“It’s no longer guaranteed that if you go to college, you will get a good income and in turn become healthier.”

FOR GENERATIONS, higher education has given all Americans — regardless of gender, racial/ethnic background or ZIP code — the opportunity to achieve a higher standard of life, and the health-related advantages that go along with it. But as the cost of tuition continues to climb, the health benefits of higher education are not what they once were.

“It’s no longer guaranteed that if you go to college, you will get a good income and in turn become healthier,” says Dr. Gilbert Gee, professor in the Fielding School’s Department of Community Health Sciences. “It’s become more of a gamble. There are people entering retirement who still have student debt to pay.”

Gee notes that the cost of higher education in the United States has increased by 250 percent over the last three decades while wages for the average family have stagnated. This has made borrowing money for college essential for many students. Student loans amounted to a staggering $1 trillion in 2012, behind only home mortgages as a source of debt. Such debt is a reality for Fielding School graduate students. One such student, who wished to be unnamed, mentioned having more than $200,000 in student loans.

In a 2014 study aiming to better understand the impact of this burden on the social and economic well-being of young adults, Gee and his colleagues found that student debt is associated with increased risk of a variety of negative health outcomes, including lack of sleep and poor mental health, likely the result of stress and worry. The problem of student debt can potentially affect entire families, Gee adds. Parents who co-sign for their children may be compromising their own financial well-being.

Gee notes that student loans from both undergraduate and graduate schooling might have “spillover effects” that could also alter or constrain career options upon completion, as well as delaying life events such as marriage and parenthood. In graduate schools of public health, for example, financial strains caused by student debt steer some graduates toward private-sector jobs — a trend made more troubling by the shortage of public health professionals in the United States.

Gee believes local, state and national policy changes could ease the burden of student debt and help ensure that education remains a pillar of public health and individual mobility. As possible solutions, he points to national policies such as income-based repayment plans and monthly limits, as well as local-level policies such as stateallocated funding for public schools and tax measures to support students.

“We need to think about ways to balance the problem of debt and education,” Gee says. “For public health especially, we need to find a way for students to graduate feeling as idealistic and passionate as when they first arrived, so that they are able to go on to make all of our communities healthier without having to sacrifice their own health.”