Graduates fear debt more than terrorism

May 18, 2005 | By Greg Toppo

The generation that came of age after Sept. 11, 2001, fears college debt and joblessness more than another terrorist attack. That’s according to a new survey of college seniors and graduates of the class of 2005, most of whom were just weeks into their college careers that fateful Tuesday.

They still fear terrorism, and most believe that Americans will experience another attack. But when asked, “ What are you most fearful of at this time?” only 13.4% said a terrorist attack; 32.4% answered “going deeply into debt,” and 31.2% said “being unemployed.”

The survey, released today by the bipartisan Partnership for Public Service, finds that 45.1% say they expect to graduate with $10,000 or more in college loans, with 20.6% saying they have more than $20,000 to pay off.

Another 27.5% say they will have no college debt.

“It is the central challenge that they face,” says William Strauss, co-author of Millennials Rising and other books about Americans born since 1982.

By 2001, Strauss says, these kids already had their sense of security altered by the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 and similar tragedies, which prompted schools to reconsider safety years before the rest of the country.

“The adjustments that the society made post-9/11 seemed less startling, and they were more willing to accept it,” Strauss says.

Though most of the students surveyed say it’s likely the USA will experience “another serious terrorist attack” in the next five years, Strauss says economic concerns will play a larger role.

“This is a larger issue than many people realize,” he says. “It’s altering life directions.” Rather than pursuing academic paths, “they feel much more obliged to pursue the highest-paying corporate path. That is a significant change from 30 to 40 years ago.”

Samantha Yarbrough, a senior at Oberlin College in Ohio, says debt burdens didn’t change her career plans, but she adds that many friends “opted not to travel for the year because they knew that their payments would start in October.”

Yarbrough, 23, of Flagstaff, Ariz., plans to attend law school eventually and run for elected office. She says Sept. 11 wasn’t really her generation’s wake-up call—the Iraq war may have more long-term impact, she says—but that the terrorist attacks were “a shock” that made them more aware of the United States’ place in the world.

“The knowledge that something like that can happen is now tucked away in our memory,” she says. “Before I think—for myself, at least—you knew it was a possibility, but like winning the lottery was a possibility.”

The Internet survey of 805 randomly sampled students was conducted May 2-5. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.


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