Louis Rabeno of Port Jefferson, N.Y. © Microsoft

Louis Rabeno of Port Jefferson, N.Y.

Louis Rabeno and his friends belong to the cursed generation -- those twenty-somethings who seemed to do everything right but still can't get ahead.

Rabeno, 26, might be called the financially conservative one among his peers, at least regarding education costs. After one semester at a four-year college, he returned home to Port Jefferson Village, N.Y., to live at home and attend community college, paying tuition as he went.

As a result, he has no student loans to pay off.

"But I have a lot of friends who went to a four-year college or went to grad school and they just owe so much money," Rabeno said. "They're just being crippled by the student loans."

It wasn't too long ago that a bachelor's degree all but assured a high-paying professional job that could offset the cost of such loans. And, in the long term, a college degree still buys a future with higher pay, lower risks and shorter durations of unemployment, economic models show.

But this has not been the case for many in the generation who graduated during the Great Recession that began in 2007. According to the Project on Student Debt, two-thirds of 2010 graduates left school with student loans, which averaged $25,250. The same class faced a 9.1% unemployment rate for young graduates, the highest in recent history.

Among the dozen or so of Rabeno's high-school friends with bachelor's or master's degrees, more than half are working at low-paying, unskilled jobs that don't require a degree. One with a B.S. in physics is giving museum tours. Another, with a political science degree, is waiting tables. A friend with a master's in journalism is working in a clothing store.

Rabeno's strategy has been to find less-expensive places to live than in his hometown. First, he spent a couple years in Portland, Ore. Next up, after he saves some cash -- he's currently living at his father's house while working at a Mexican restaurant -- will be Florida, or Austin, Texas, or maybe Toronto.

"I'm going where I know I can make a living, still rent a room, have my own space. But here, it's impossible. The cheapest studio is $800 a month," he says. "Even on $10, $12 an hour you're not going to be able to live comfortably when you're paying $800 a month in rent, then food, gas, everything, car insurance."

Rabeno knows he'll have to return to school at some point, but it's tough enough to pay the bills as it is. Why add student debt to the load?

"There's no reason for me to go back now when I see my friends; they owe tons of money, have graduate degrees and are doing the same thing I'm doing," he said.

"I don't think I'm asking for much: a job where I can afford to pay my rent and live somewhat comfortably and just to be insured if I get sick and something's wrong," Rabeno said. "That's a right that I think everybody should have, to be able to live healthy and live just somewhat comfortably."

Rabeno is currently without health insurance, which he can't afford to buy on his own. Most of the jobs he can get without a four-year degree don't offer health benefits.

He has been insured for only one year since finishing high school. When he was 25, the provision of the Affordable Care Act allowing children to be covered under their parents' plan until they turn 26 went into effect.

"Obama, he's putting us in the right direction, I would say, but more has to be done," Rabeno said. "I feel like Obama's trying to do things, but he's getting blocked by Congress."

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Rabeno said his mother's side of the family is more politically conservative than he is and tells him that he needs to work hard for things like financial security and health insurance.

"Their whole thing is that they had worked for it," he said. "But it was different for them, 20, 30, 40 years ago, because you didn't have to go to college, you didn't have to pay all this money. You graduated high school and you could get a good job, get a house and start supporting a family. That's not how you can do it now."

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