Student Loan Debt Makes My Degrees Feel More Like Punishments Instead of Accomplishments
On May 13, 2017 I graduated from undergrad.
My entire family came, I was honored at the ceremony, then the president of my university handed me an empty diploma case. Two years later I received my Master's degree. I got an actual degree in the mail this time, but I couldn't help feeling like the diploma case was still empty.
I was the first in my immediate family to receive a graduate degree; the first of many of my friends as well. I felt like I should have been more excited about this shiny, new piece of paper that came in the mail. I was in the club of people whose "prices had gone up" right?
That shiny new piece of paper, however, put me in an entirely different club that I didn't ask to be a part of: the one with the 23% of postgraduate degree holders who have six figures in student loan debt. It's next to the other club with the one-third of adults under 30 who are paying student loans.
When I decided to attend college out-of-state I was an eighteen-year-old who had just gotten accepted to her "dream" school. I'd been told I'd receive a scholarship, but never told that the scholarship was partial. It was also a requirement (in order for me to finish my high school senior portfolio) to apply for Federal Financial Aid. It had never been explained to us (high school students) how much school would cost. Our counselors never explained that Financial Aid meant loans. They never explained that "loans" meant....not your money.
When you're fairly uneducated on the financial commitment aspect of college, things like out-of-state tuition, loans, and interest can be an overwhelming wake up call to receive all at once. What possible choice could an unprepared freshman make when they're receiving notices of unpaid tuition, and possibly being kicked out of classes? Home wasn't down the street. It was more than 1,500 miles away. My band program could only give so much in scholarships on an annual basis. The solution was always presented as "go to the financial aid office and ask for more money."
So I did.
By the time I realized just how much I'd be impacted by student loan debt, I was more than halfway into my undergraduate degree. I had transferred to a different school where I was receiving more aid in the form of scholarships along with an out-of-state fee waiver, but the damage from my first two years of school has been done. I could either choose to leave school to avoid accruing more debt or keep going in order to earn a degree that (I hope) would be able to help me pay back my loans. I chose to keep going.
About two weeks before graduation all graduates were required to attend exit counseling for our student loans. Exit counseling consisted of an hour-long session where you were given a personalized file that showed you your student loan debt. For many of us, this was the first time we'd seen an itemized list of just how much debt we'd accrued. Here I was: heading into what should have been one of the happiest moments of my life and instantly regretting ever having gone to college in the first place.
I'd hoped that when I graduated and was finally able to put a degree on my resume I'd feel more confident about my ability to pay my loans back. Despite having a degree, however, I kept being offered jobs that only paid slightly above minimum wage. I got even more offers for unpaid "internships" with the promise that I'd gain more experience (because experience is fun when you can't keep your lights on.) During that time it was difficult to prioritize what mattered more: surviving and paying my bills or gaining much-needed experience. I remember laughter that turned into tears when a national news station ran a story on the national student loan debt being in the trillions which was followed by another on the rising cost of living. In that moment I knew the universe was laughing at me.
Going to grad school was a difficult decision I made when I realized that in order to get the type of career I wanted, I needed more (costly) education. A part of me hoped that having a Master's degree would eradicate the difficulties I found in the job search after undergrad. After all, who the hell would offer someone with a Master's degree minimum wage? That person would have to be crazy.
After finishing grad-school I was unemployed for six months. It turns out a lot of people are crazy. Last month though, I found a great job that managed to combine decent pay and valuable experience. For the first time in months I felt like I could breathe. I grew to love my job and the people I work with. I began to see myself growing after finally being able to use both degrees for the first time.
Then last week, I received an email notification from my student loan servicer. My first payment is due within the next few weeks.
I always knew that the student loan payments were coming, but I couldn't help feeling a bit of joy fade when the payment notification came. After years of struggling to find an outlet to use my degrees, I am reminded of just how much they cost me. In moments like these my degrees go from feeling like accomplishments to feeling like burdens. Those beautiful pieces of paper that should represent 6 years of experiences, sacrifice and hard work look more like $100,000 cinder blocks strapped to each ankle. They weigh down every life plan like a naggy neighbor who doesn't plan on moving away any time soon.
I don't want to regret having gone to college; I experienced and learned so much, I met some of the most important people in my life. Yet I often wonder how differently I'd feel had I stayed at home. I wonder how differently life could have gone had someone stepped in and told my 18-year-old self that college would cost me thousands of dollars I didn't have.
I probably wouldn't have experienced the great things I have - but I'd be able to breathe. I wouldn't be in debt. I'd know what freedom feels like.