I came from a home where my parents eventually declared bankruptcy and lost their home to foreclosure. I was a 19 year old English major at a state school; I had transferred away from my community college to a state school simply to get out of the house. My community college had been fully paid for by scholarship, and I paid my gas and other needs through a part time job as a dishwasher. At the state school, though, I lived in the dorms. I wanted to be a “real” student, which I thought meant not having a job so I could study and have a social life.
The financial aid office was happy to let me sign a few forms to take out the loans that, in addition to my scholarship, paid for my tuition, my dorms, my books, and my social life with a hefty refund check. I never even spoke to a counselor, just the secretary who took my forms. By spring semester I wanted a little more cash so I got a student job in the library for minimum wage. I moved off campus and suddenly had an apartment to furnish; I justified my purchase of bookshelves, novels to fill them, and good quality dishes, pots, pans, and linens through the cheaper cost of the apartment than the dorms. Student loans paid for it all, even though by this time I was working 20 hours a week.
College is time to travel, too, so student loans paid for a summer in Seattle, camping trips around the country, and road trips whenever I wanted to take them. I signed form after form and received thousands and thousands of dollars. When I graduated I had to watch a 20-minute video on how I needed to pay my loans. It never occurred to me, and no one ever asked, how I was going to pay for those loans with a Bachelor’s in English.
I couldn’t find a job with a BA in English, and the loans were coming due, so I went to graduate school. Even though I got a TA position that paid my tuition and gave me a living stipend, I took out the maximum loans allowed to graduate students. I went to California, New Orleans, and Washington DC. I ate at good restaurants. Graduate loans are often double those of undergraduates. And I kept going; until I found a job, I couldn’t pay my loans, so I had to stay in school, right? I earned two Master’s degrees, but both were in English, so all I could find were part-time adjunct positions.
In the middle, I got married and found myself unexpectedly pregnant. I wanted to be able to minimize my son’s time in care, so I applied for a PhD program. Still, I never spoke to a financial aid counselor or anyone who said, “What are you doing?” My family was proud of me for going to school! What more did I need to know I was doing the right thing?
Two years into my PhD program I reached the maximum student loans allowable. It turns out that limit is $160,000. I wanted to finish my program, and I still needed the in-school deferment, so I juggled part-time jobs… and it turns out I could pay for my own tuition. Finally waking to my reality, I read the books: Dave Ramsey, Suze Orman, all of them. Oh no.
My student loans now dictate my life: where I can live, what I can do for a living, and even how much I see my siblings. In order to get that coveted full-time English job, I had to move 1000 miles away from my family to live in New York. It’s a great job. But the cost of living here is much higher, and I am now a single mom getting no child support. In ten years I will be making enough to pay my loans down and live without worrying how I will pay for everything else; by that time my son will be in college. Right now I pay a reduced minimum that is more per month than I paid in rent in college; we buy thrift store clothes and shop at Aldi’s. Ironically, I couldn’t finish my PhD program because I was teaching too many extra classes to support myself and my son to focus on writing my dissertation.
I spent the money; I had a great time in college and I was able to be home more while my son was an infant. Now I have only a smattering of what I spent that money on, though, and my son will have to deal with me working overtime for money from which he will not get any benefits. When I was filling out form after form, I wish someone had asked me how much I thought an English major could make. I wish they had broken down how much per month I could afford to pay off– for the record, if I wasn’t paying the reduced rate temporarily, I would have to pay $2,106 a month, which is almost 2/3 of my current take-home pay. Why is the limit not lower for non-med-school or law-school students?
I figured it out once; I could have easily paid for my college and graduate school needs with a part-time job and work over the summer. I now have friends who have done it. There are also schools I have learned of which exchange tuition costs for part-time campus work. Would I go back and trade those travels and novels and pots and pans (which I still use now, since I could not afford to buy more if I wanted to) for working more then but less with more choices and more time with my son now? Yes.
As a nation we are panicking about student loan debt. The solutions all seem to involve forgiveness of current debt. I don’t need mine forgiven; I will pay my debt because I spent the money. But I would like to see other naive, unguided 19 year olds prevented from making that debt in the first place. We created a culture where debt is not questioned and always thought necessary in the cause of education. I call baloney on that one. As an unmarried, childless college student who was able to work, I should have been able to get through school with minimal debt. If I had not had loans available or if I had better counseling, I would have been able to. Perhaps we should consider preventing the problem rather than dealing with the inevitable consequences of throwing ‘free’ money at people with no way to pay it back.