Millennials deserve a break. Do they as a generation have faults? Sure, each one has. But the amount of gaslighting millennials face about what they should have accomplished by now is insane. Like having two times their salary saved by 35, which is possible for some and out the reach of many. Or hearing politicians claim to have no empathy because growing up in the 1960s and 70s was so difficult.

Millennials have inherited major problems. One is student debt. Oh, a good number of students have for decades needed to borrow money to undertake college studies. But the gap between educational costs and the amount someone could expect to make after graduation -- or working part-time -- used to be much smaller.

The graph below shows the most recent federal data available at this time. It compares the cost of the average annual college education -- including tuition, fees, and room and board, multiplied by four for an estimate of a total education cost -- to general median income as well as median incomes of male and female holders of a bachelor's degree (the last two only available since 1991).

 inline image

People coming out of college make significantly less in comparison to the cost of a bachelor's degree than they once did. (The figures assume you're done in four years, which is frequently not the case, so the costs are likely higher on average.) A lower income in relation to the debt means less money to pay it off. It also means many families are decreasingly able to help student in comparison to cost.

Aggravating the situation is the relative drop in what used to be some primary forms of financial aid. For example, the Pell grant was supposed to be a mainstay of educational opportunity for lower income students. In 1975, the maximum grant would cover 67 percent of the average college cost. By 2012, it was down to 27 percent. In that span of years, top grants had increased, but only by 95 percent as college costs grew by 2.3 times.

Forty years ago, four years of tuition only at a big-name school was less than a full year's gross income on graduation. There was more room to get financially situated.

In a recent social media discussion, a friend of mine, who graduated some years before I did, said he was able to attend a private college and afford tuition, books, an apartment, and a car with part-time work. He knew many high school classmates, and not from some wealthy enclave, whose parents could pay for school.

Try that now.

So it's loans and working part-time, although the latter has become a burden, with insufficient wages forcing many students to work so much that it negatively affects their grades, according to a new Georgetown study.

Getting mad doesn't help, but remembering the real conditions, and not some idealized fairy tale, can help you keep your head on straight. Here are some other practical steps:

  • Get a second part-time job, as I've suggested before. Yes, it's a pain and you lose a lot of your free time. But it can help you dig out faster and not face a fearful future.
  • If you want to go to graduate school, consider opportunities overseas where you may find top schools that, with state support, charge a fraction of what equivalent universities in the U.S. would. (Remember that language skills could be an issue.)
  • If, with working more than one job, things like making dinners or running errands are problems, find some friends or acquaintances in the same boat and pool resources. Maybe everyone cooks a dish for multiple people and everyone swaps, putting their meals in their freezers, or you all take turns doing a drycleaner run.
  • Cut all unnecessary spending (being ruthless about what is and isn't necessary) and put the extra money into larger loan payments. That can start bringing down the total more quickly.
  • Research the various programs to manage loan repayments and possibly get some amount of forgiveness. Don't depend on the lender to tell you what might be possible, as they don't have a legal responsibility to do so and might rather keep you in thrall for as long as they can.