Student debt – it’s one of the most debilitating barriers that the younger generation is facing in America today.
And the problem keeps growing.
Over 70% of students are graduating with some debt, and that number is expected to keep growing as college and university tuition keep climbing.
But how did we get here? What can we do about it? And what does it mean for the future of entrepreneurship?
We spoke with the founder of Chipper, Tony Aguilar, for his perspective.
Aguilar experienced first hand the burden of student loans, coming out of school with $102,000 in student debt. Smart, driven, ambitious, and Aguilar had what it took to get into top schools, but was faced with a difficult reality when trying to pay for them.
About his process of finding a school, Aguilar explains:
“I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school –– so obviously the first person to go to college as well. So, I grew up pretty poor and we had to finance every penny to get me to an out of state school.
But, really we didn’t know that much about the process. We had never filled out any FAFSA or financial aid form, so it was challenging. I also went to a school where counselors weren’t very helpful, you know they just said ‘sign here and get the money to go to college’ without giving adequate advice to students or helping them fully understand what they were in for.”
And this story isn’t an uncommon one.
Students and their families get saddled with debt as the expectation that students go to college and get a degree becomes more and more pervasive. Meanwhile, information about how to go to college in the most practical and cost-effective way stays relatively hidden for many students.
Too often, as Aguilar observed, students were having to make the choices then deal with the debt fallout after the fact.
So how does the student debt crisis impact entrepreneurs?
Well, according to Justin Crites, senior infrastructure engineer of Honest Dollar and former student entrepreneur the answer isn’t so cut and dry.
“It depends on the magnitude of the debt. What level the student was at. If I’m an MBA student and I’m $150,000 in debt, it’s very different than if I’m an undergrad and I have $10,000-$20,000 in debt. That magnitude is very difficult to overcome. It’s very difficult to try and go out and earn a startup salary if you are $150,000 in debt.”
But then, Crites is one of those lucky ones with a lower magnitude of debt who wanted to start a company and did start a company. And his approach to tackling the debt was fairly simple, “When I left school I was $20,000 in debt and I wasn’t sure how the debt cycle worked out, but I went and talked to a financial counselor who specialized in student debt and that told me the options that I had and which one worked best for my situation — that being that I was starting a company out of school.”
To Crites, having that financial advisor made a big difference, and finding one is a strategy that he would suggest not only to aspiring entrepreneurs but with any recent grads struggling with their debt. And, according to Crites, the barrier to speaking with one is fairly small, the problem is awareness:
“If you’re with a credit union, most of them provide financial advisors, often for free. Now the problem is, students don’t know about it or if they need it or not.”
But that’s not to say a financial advisor will put an end to the problem.
Of course, crippling student debt can discourage young and aspiring entrepreneurs.
As Aguilar attests: “With student loans, you have a lot of recent graduates jumping into jobs out of necessity so they can start paying loans off. So they are pushing their dreams and aspirations aside. Not just for entrepreneurship, but even for certain career paths.”
That culture of survival jobs inhibits innovation and new ventures by necessity.
By forcing students into a situation where they are unable –– or disinclined –– to take risks, student debt is slowly but surely killing American entrepreneurship.
Since 1996, the percentage of young entrepreneurs has been in decline –– from 35% at the ‘96 high to 18% in 2014.
And yet, entrepreneurship programs across the country are continuing to grow and expand, with formal entrepreneurship programs more than quadrupling from 104 in 1975 to over 500 in 2006. The interest that we see from students across campuses –– regardless of background and geographical location –– indicates that becoming an entrepreneur is an increasingly appealing option for students.
So how do students square that interest with the discouragement that student loans bring?
The first option is: decide whether college is the best choice.
“Do you actually need to go to college to pursue your entrepreneurial vision?” Aguilar questions, “Everything I learned as an entrepreneur, I learned outside of school.”
However, with institutions of higher learning taking an increased interest in entrepreneurial activity –– with one-third of business incubators being housed on campuses in 2012 alone –– incentives have never been higher to start businesses as students.
A second option is: don’t wait until graduation to start your venture.
Becoming an entrepreneur at school opens young entrepreneurs up to all the resources that their schools provide before they have to start paying their student loans and offers them better access to a mentor network.
As a student entrepreneur, you have the opportunity to participate in pitch and business plan competitions that offer cash prizes for you to reinvest in your business. And with the use of on-campus incubators, students are able to develop their ventures to launch.
The third option is taking the risk in spite of the debt.
Many entrepreneurs, like Justin Crites, are risk-takers by nature. It’s in their personality. Despite his debt, there was no doubt in his mind that this is what he wanted to do. When describing his thought process for starting his first venture at 21, Crites said, “I think that I have a very high-risk tolerance. My ability to assess risk is completely skewed from other people. So I will jump into something with no money, no saving and just go after it.”
And he’s not alone in that. At 3 Day Startup programs we always see a few young entrepreneurs with that kind of drive and willingness to take the risk.
Of course, there are ways to mitigate risk.
A successful crowdfunding campaign, for instance, can be invaluable to taking a product to production. And beginning your venture while still working a full-time job can help both to test commitment to the venture and help and aspiring entrepreneur make strides while still earning money until they are in a position to transition to their venture full-time.
But those are only solutions for individuals. And the student debt crisis is bigger than any one student or set of students. So how can we solve the problem on a large scale?
To move towards prevention, more regulation of how much students can borrow and how much schools can charge may be a practical next step.
The likelihood of this next step, however, is largely dependent on the federal government acknowledging that this a real problem that is worth solving and drawing up legislation accordingly.
But you as an individual can get involved to create outsized change. Talk to your schools, call your representatives, and tell your story as an aspiring entrepreneur trying to conquer your debt.