"Big Four" Highlights


Bottom-Line Habits

Valuable virtues for families repaying student loan debts

By Jason Godin

Tasseled caps are flying skyward this spring for college graduates, and so is their college debt. According to Edvisors, a group of websites dedicated to helping plan and pay for college, the average student loan debt level for the class of 2015 is approximately $35,000, with total education debt – federal and private education loans extended to all graduates with a bachelor’s degree and their parents – at around $68 billion. Both sums are the highest levels ever recorded … until next year.

How will new graduates pay off the accumulated high costs of their higher education? As their peers from previous years have done, many will move back in with their parents to save on living expenses as they search for their first “real” job in a weak economy. They’ll put off getting married and, if and when they do get married, they’ll wait to have children. All in the name of cutting costs.

Financially and demographically, this pattern of putting off adult decisions points to an unsettling and unsustainable future for millennials. To reverse such troubling trends, it may be time for parents and graduates to get back to the basics of the four cardinal virtues – prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. By developing these time-honored virtues, they can gain perspective as they start paying back their staggering student loans.

According to the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCCC), prudence discerns what is our true good in every circumstance and chooses the right means for achieving it (cf. 380). For families looking to climb out of college debt, prudence means to exercise discipline in all financial transactions. It demands distinguishing purchases that are “needs” from ones that are simply “wants.”

The second cardinal virtue is justice, the “firm and constant will to give others their due” (CCCC, 381). Student loans have afforded millions of people opportunities to earn a college degree and, afterward, an above average wage in a skilled economy. They have served as a helpful “hand up” for borrowers, but with conditions that must be honored. Loans must be paid back on schedule so funds remain available for the next generation of students.

Fortitude is “firmness in difficulties” and “constancy in the pursuit of the good” (CCCC, 382). Repaying student loans is difficult for all parties involved. Adult children who enjoyed the independence offered when away at college will lose some of that freedom by returning to their parents’ roof and rules. Parents who dreamed of an “empty nest” and more vacations will have to wait. Yet it is worth the exchange for a debt-free future for the entire family.

Lastly, temperance “moderates the attraction of pleasures, assures the mastery of the will over instincts” and “provides balance in the use of created goods” (CCCC, 383). This might prove the most difficult virtue of the four to practice, especially for a generation that is characterized as seeking instant, online gratification. Yet temperance can transform the desire for treasure into true sacrifice, and may even guide the proper use of other resources such as time and talents.

Student loan debt levels matter to millennials, the roughly 70 million men and women born in the U.S. between 1981 and 1996. Thankfully marriage matters to them, too. The latest Pew Research reveals that although 68% of millennials have never married, close to two-thirds of that group say they would like to marry someday. When asked why they haven’t married yet, 29% said they aren’t financially prepared.

It should concern us all that for the most-educated generation in history, marriage is delayed partly due to staggering student loans in a fragile economy. But rather than criticize the new graduates, or wring our hands helplessly over their financial fate, we should advise them how to move forward with the virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. These virtues can make them better persons and offer them hope in their present circumstances, as they seek to build a solid foundation for their financial future.

Jason Godin is associate editor of Fathers for Good.