In 2011 and at 30 years old, Chad Albright sought a new beginning over 7,000 miles away from his home and loved ones. China was a long way from Pennsylvania, but it also distanced him from a dreaded $30,000 student loan debt.
Such an extreme move came after years of depression from bills piling up and one failed job interview after another. "I had to escape this debtors’ prison," Chad said. "That's what America became to me, a prison. So I left." He felt like this was his only choice, his only hope for a better life.
As with many students embarking on the college journey, taking out student loans seems like a viable option when savings and other financial aid options aren’t enough. The rationale is that you’ll be in debt temporarily, and then you’ll graduate with your degree, get a job that pays well, and be able to square away your loans within a few years.
But with the country’s outstanding student debt exceeding $1 trillion, and 1 million people defaulting on student loans every year, many graduates like Chad regret ever going to college and feel like the stress of finding a job and paying back loans isn’t worth the experience. “I was expected to make a $400 loan payment every month, but I had no money, no sustainable income,” Chad said during a Skype interview. “College ruined my life."
Chad graduated in December 2007 amidst the financial crisis that would later become known as the Great Recession. Naturally, finding a job during the longest economic crash since the Great Depression was unlikely. “Two years of nonstop interviews and nothing,” Chad said. “I was so done.”
Chad began teaching English in Zhongshan, China upon his arrival in 2011. Working with children gave him a sense of accomplishment he had been yearning for in the United States, and although he was only making around $1,000 a month, it was more than enough to cover his expenses. He even had enough financial leeway to eat out with friends and travel to other cities on occasion. Chad was finally able to do “things I never got the chance to do in America because of my student debt...My life was so much better once I left. Why would I ever go back?”
Chad's pain is one that's felt by a lot of college graduates. I'm sure you can walk into any number of Starbucks franchises and find a barista with a Master's degree. Some might argue that if you have difficulty finding a job, then all you need to do is head over to a part of the country where there are more job openings. But that's a double-edged sword.
Where there are more job opportunities, there's usually a higher cost of living associated with it. Just ask any programmer or software engineer what it's like living near the Silicon Valley area in California. Oh, you work in Manhattan? The city's full of people who have multiple-hour commutes. Heck, I live in northern NJ and know how overpriced just my neighborhood is... and it's not like I'm sitting pretty, either.
The same could be said of Austin, Dallas, or downtown Miami. And again, getting a college degree is no guarantee you'll get a job that pays well enough for you to chip away at those loans. Just ask the number of retirees in America who are still working hard to pay off their student loans. For many, it's a new form of indentured servitude, so I find it difficult to blame Chad for up and leaving.
But don’t start packing your bags yet, says expert Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president for research at Savingforcollege.com. “The way you deal with big figures is you take it one step at a time. You will eventually pay back that debt, eventually you will reach a solution. Just because you’re not in the U.S. doesn’t mean the loans disappear. You’re really only digging yourself a bigger hole.” Mark wants to remind graduates that there are less drastic ways out: income-based repayment plans, refinancing loans, and several other options more practical than leaving the country for good.
What do you think? Did Chad over-react? Is it a grimy move to just "escape" your debt and live overseas without fear of having to pay it? Honestly, his $30,000 of debt pales in comparison to what I owe and I don't even know how I'm going to begin paying it back. Oh well, that's a problem for future Mustafa, I guess. Maybe I'll learn a new language and become a foreign soap opera actor as a token American?