Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. Here’s this week’s! It’s bad in Canada; but this situation is even worse in the United States, since university costs so much more there (no idea why).
In the fall of 1988, a much younger version of myself left home and launched my new life at Queen’s University. I was optimistic. I was enthusiastic. And I had money in the bank.
I had graduated a semester early and worked full-time for several months, so I could pay for my entire first year.
The following summer I polished off my resume and found work with a temp firm in Toronto as an executive secretary. I made $15 an hour. The next summer I stayed in Kingston and earned roughly the same amount.
Tuition was about $2000 a year. I joined together with three other young women and rented a house which was drafty, tiny, and cheap. One of my housemates and I started a home-based business typing student’s essays and printing them out on our handy-dandy oh-so-rare laser printer. I made $2 a page, translating to $20 an hour (I type fast). By working full time in the summer, and typing the occasional essay, I could pay for my whole year of university, which was about $7000. One of my roommates had a dad who worked with GM, and she was automatically given a job on the line each summer, earning $20 an hour. She paid her whole way, too.
Almost twenty-five years later my seventeen-year-old daughter works part-time as a lifeguard and swim instructor, a job she loves and which required hours of training and certification. She earns less money now than I did then. A friend of hers works part-time at the mall, making less than 2/3 what I did back in 1989. Yet tuition has more than quadrupled. Rents have increased, as has the price of almost everything, most especially Kraft Dinner, which makes a severe dent in student’s budgets. A year of university or college now costs roughly $17,000, if you’re frugal. And student wages have not increased.
Most of the people I attended university with graduated without too much debt. Finding summer jobs was always a bit of a panic-inducing process, but it was possible. Because you could pay for school yourself, you felt more like an adult. You grew up faster. Today students can’t possibly put themselves through school, and so they’re dependent upon their parents far longer.
I suppose the wage gap between then and now is partly because the late 80s coincided with the computer revolution, and those who, like me, could actually use computers were paid a premium because the skill was still relatively rare. Today such skills are so widespread the thought of making money typing someone’s essay is laughable. And factory jobs for university students have all but disappeared.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that the average student debt in Canada is now $27,000. That’s the equivalent of a downpayment on a house. Far more young adults will be settling in to the basements of their parents’ homes long-term, trying to earn money to pay off debt instead of starting what we normally think of as adult life—moving out, buying a home, getting married. Debt delays everything.
Life is difficult today for twenty-somethings, and this week, as many arrive back home from university and college, they’ll be pounding the pavement, desperately hoping to land a job that will pay maybe $9 an hour. At some point, something’s gotta give. Will so many students continue to pursue higher education, even when jobs aren’t readily available? Or will more and more say, “I don’t want that kind of debt”, and try to think outside the box? I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the more enterprising among them hop off that debt train and start dreaming of a quicker, cheaper way to build a life for themselves, out of their parents’ basement.
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