Optimism in the Face of Student Debt

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Optimism in the Face of Student Debt

Oct, 13th 2016

We recently undertook a brief discussion of how student debt can negatively affect an individual’s psyche. It’s an incredibly broad topic, with countless angles to explore. For today, let’s look at the idea of Optimism, something that can be in short supply to those burdened with thousands of dollars in student debt.

Endless numbers of books, seminars, and advice columns have been dedicated to the idea of ‘positive thinking’ as the path towards improving one’s life and, to a certain extent, the claim carries scientific weight. For our purposes, however, it’s useful to narrow our focus. Consider the “attributional style” of optimism as described in this study from the journal Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health. According to the study, attributional optimism is a function of the belief

“…that negative events are inconstant (the negative event will not repeat itself), external (I am not responsible for the event) and specific (the event is “specific”, self-limiting and will not influence any other activities of mine and my life).”

Each of these factors - inconstancy, externality, and specificity - presents challenges when discussing how student debt affects the lives of graduates. At the root of the difficulty is the fact that debt is not an ‘event’ as such but, rather, a persistent burden that carries from day to day, year to year, until it is paid off.

We see, then, how it can be difficult for a graduate to think of their student debt as ‘inconstant.’ Until it is resolved, their debt will be, by its very nature, a constant in their lives. The status of the financial stress will not go away the next day or the next year but will, in fact, worsen given the debt’s accruing interest. If payments are being made on time, then the debt may be a more back-of-the-mind concern, but it will still be ever-present. If the debt were to become delinquent, however, the source of negativity could spiral out of control with the flood of collection agency calls and paperwork that would result. Given all of this, we can see how the graduate would be hard-pressed to believe their debt to be ‘inconstant’ (and thus feel optimistic about their future) even if they are able to keep up with it.

Skipping over the ‘external’ qualification for the moment, let’s address the ‘specific’ aspect of optimism, as this one is relatively straight-forward. Financial debt is not self-contained; it affects every part of one’s life as it directly influences one’s purchasing power and credit. Apartment renting, car buying/leasing, credit card and loan applications, there are umpteen ways that debt can negatively affect the life of its owner. It’s therefore more or less delusional for a graduate to believe that their debt “will not influence any other activities” in their life.

Finally, we have the idea of ‘externality;’ that the negative force is not the fault of the one it’s affecting. Addressing this is much more nebulous since it is intimately tied to the greater psychology of the individual. The debtor, in their own mind, asks ‘Am I responsible for my own debt?’ and their answer influences how optimistic they feel about themselves going forward. From a purely objective standpoint, the answer would be ‘Yes.’ Generally, the debtor takes out the loan and is thus responsible for their debt. The critical factor, however, is whether that choice is seen as positive or negative. Was taking out the loan the ‘right’ choice?

This strikes at the very heart of the question of whether college was ‘worth it,’ a question we have touched on before. Many factors can influence their thoughts on this matter – their college experience, their current employment, the opinions of their friends and family, etc... – and they will likely not come to a definitive answer. This may, however, be the most telling of the three factors as it gives a glimpse into the debtor’s sense of self-worth, which, it would seem to logical to assume, will have a dominating influence on how optimistic they are about their future.

And this is, perhaps, the definitive factor here – how one looks upon the choices they’ve made. The study cited at the beginning outlines several theories of ‘optimism’ beyond the ‘attributional style’ we’ve explored here that relies on these three factors. For my part, I would add that how one reflects upon the choices they’ve made, either with regret or pride, plays a key role in how they come to believe their future will play out. If you’ve convinced yourself that you’ve made bad decisions, then you have less evidence on which to believe that you’ll make good ones in the future. On the other hand, if you come to accept your student debt as the justifiable price for the choice you made to further your education and personal enrichment, then it will make it easier (not easy) to see yourself making equally and more successful decisions going forward.

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