Column: A college diploma, $63,000 in student loans -- and no career path

Published August 21 2018
Updated August 24 2018

From a distance, Tampa looked attractive and opportunistic for a recent college graduate. Great weather, low unemployment, a city on the move.

I grew up in Kalamazoo, Mich., graduated in 2017 from Western Michigan University at the age of 21 and moved to Tampa the following year to search for a job with my journalism degree. I chose downtown Tampa over rural Michigan to better my chances of finding job opportunities and to further my education away from the only place Iíd ever called home.

I already was $64,000 in debt for student loans, and I was eager to start my career. But after a year here, it turns out Tampa is like many other major cities, where millennials are struggling to land decent jobs with their debt-stained college diplomas.

Looking for a job is a full-time gig itself. Hours of sifting through online job boards and newspaper classified ads, looking for anything paying more than $13 an hour, always ends with a dead-end. My resume lacks the critical information employers require for the most basic entry level position: professional experience.

The few jobs my degree actually qualifies me for are positions requiring a degree in any field, have nothing to do with journalism, and mainly consist of cooking hamburgers inside a kitchen the temperature of a medium-rare steak. These jobs pay a few dollars more an hour than the average fast-food employee fishing for french fries inside a commercial deep fryer.

Not too long ago, I was the fast-food employee back in Michigan struggling to balance a 15 credit hour course load with a full-time job that barely paid my rent. All of that hard work was supposed to pay off the day I received my diploma. But even restaurants are stiffening their requirements for new hires. A college diploma has awarded me a $2 an hour raise.

Now in Tampa, Iím an underemployed 22-year-old opening monthly student loan statements ó $840 a month for 10 years.

Iíve been making ends meet now working the third shift in the home delivery department of the Tampa Bay Times. I was desperate to obtain some kind of professional experience to pair with my educational background. Graduate school at the University of Tampa has delayed the undergraduate student loan payments for another two years while I continue my education ó and rack up another $30,000 in student loans. Sprinkle in my rent in downtown Tampa ($1,600 a month), car payment and insurance ($400 a month), and annual tuition increases for grad school, and itís clear I canít make the loan payments while working for $13 an hour.

The common misperception about millennials is that we expect everything to be handed to us. Iím not asking to be given my dream job on a silver platter because I graduated college. Being fussy about the work isnít the problem, as Iíve applied for positions in both marketing and technical writing. I didnít qualify due to a lack of experience.

Millennials do not seek sympathy; we need empathy. This low pay and lack of entry-level positions leaves too many college graduates choosing between making payments on student loans or paying rent to avoid eviction. There have to be more entry-level jobs out there that would allow me to use my education that do not require five years of experience.

In the meantime, I am taking out more student loans to afford graduate school. I fear I am setting myself up for economic failure while trying to give myself another chance. The deflation of the value of a bachelorís degree has led to increased admissions for graduate schools across the country. Is it even a surprise this has increased the national student loan debt?

According to Forbes, the average college graduate in their 20s spends $350 a month on student loans, amounting roughly to 8 to 10 percent of annual income. With the average rent in Tampa over $1,200 a month, how are millennials expected to swim their way out of this astronomical sea of debt?

For too many recent college graduates, Tampa isnít hiring. Tampa is hardly even giving us a chance. Unpaid and low-paid internships are a trending means to obtaining the required experience most employers are seeking. But potentially defaulting on student loans in order to accept these positions doesnít seem like the best path, either.

In the meantime, I will maintain a positive outlook on the ultimate value of a college education as I move through grad school. I will hope employers also come to see that value rather than only focus on experience ó before my student loan payments are as high as my rent.

Alex Michael Taylor is a graduate student at the University of Tampa.