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Student loan debt is causing Gen Z students to prioritize finances over pas- sion, according to a new study released by Handshake.

The commissioned survey of 1,400 U.S. college students identified rising tuition costs and student loan debt as the factors pressuring students to be less orientated toward their dream careers due to needing high-paying jobs. Three-fourths of the survey participants said they would graduate with debt: 8.4% ranging from $50,000 to $99,999 and 3.5% surpassing $100,000.

The study showed about 61% of the college students were fine with accepting a job they have no passion in, and nearly half of respondents would take the first job they are offered to help pay off their debt.

Those who face these dilemmas often think their choice will be permanent and likely result in unfavorable consequences, such as being stable and unhappy or independent and impoverished. David Bell, a WKU creative writing professor, said he hopes students understand that there’s not one set path to “making it” in the world. 

“No one has any idea where their lives are going to go, but if they’re open to anything and follow their interests, the chances are it’s going to work out for them,” Bell said.

Bell said he encourages students to pursue what they’re passionate about because people do well at the things they love. 

In an article by Cison, Handshake CEO Garrett Lord made a similar statement on the importance of a workplace being filled with genuine interest and passion.

Yet, some students may choose to look past this because of the scarce amount of hiring opportunities in today’s world.

The survey found Gen Z had little hope in the job market, with more than half of the respondents voting that their parents had a better chance of being hired after graduation than they do.

Bell recognized this side when it comes to students who are in the process of choosing their careers.

“I understand wanting to have security in life,” Bell said. “I think everybody wants that.” 

But Bell said he doesn’t want students to just think uncertainty happens for students who pursue creative fields.

“The biggest challenge I faced going into a creative field is that there is a great deal of uncertainty about it,” Bell said. “But people who go into business and other fields that people would label more certain, they face a lot of uncertainty too.”

He’s seen several people who have been laid off of jobs working in business or watched companies close.

The survey found that over 15% of the college students had a parent lose their job, 7.9% had two parents lose a job and 20.1% said the wages of one or both parents were lost as a result.

Bell’s advice for students worrying about their future is to realize that no business or job is certain and guaranteed. No matter what field a person goes into, there will always be risks to face.

Many students become concerned about these risks but aren’t always aware of the flexibility they have with paying back student loans.

Almost 45% of the 1,004 students expected their repayment period to be from five to 10 years when in actuality, some might have more time depending on how much they’ve taken out.

The Department of Education details the standard repayment plan for a student with student loans and shows that the more student loans a student has, the more time they receive to pay it off.

 

Usually, borrowers enter a grace period after graduation when they won’t have to pay anything. Once the repayment period starts, students have the opportunity to adjust their payment plan to something affordable for someone in their situation.

But even with financial assistance, some students don’t have the privilege of working in their ideal career because of other life obligations.

Sarah Ochs, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, said some students aren’t afforded the luxury to make independent choices when there are other factors to consider.

“People have family that they’re around that they can’t leave and not be close by,” Ochs said. 

The stigma around choosing money over happiness or vice versa often clouds people’s reality on what influences people’s career paths. 

“Sometimes they’re underqualified,” Ochs said. “Young people have bills that need to be paid, and it’s the only job they can do.” 

Ochs already faced the dilemma and chose to prioritize her own happiness and fulfilment even with “significant student loan debt.”

She works in a setting where she is happy, she said, even though her degree elsewhere would bring in considerably more money.

Ochs said she tells students to be thoughtful and intentional about defining success for themselves because it allows them to have a clearer picture of their priorities and what it will take to get there.

News reporter Matthew Williams can be reached at matthew.williams904@topper.wku.edu.

Matthew Williams is a news reporter for the College Heights Herald. A freshman from Russellville, Kentucky, Williams previously covered sustainability.