Who is to blame for the student loan crisis? Is it the students themselves? The economy? Predatory lending companies that get rich off pie-in-the-sky dreams of middle-class eighteen-year-olds? Below, two of Alternative Control’s regulars and guest writer Tal Good discuss their experiences handling the debt they accrued getting an education they thought they needed….
I grew up in a working class neighborhood in the Bronx where it was drilled in our heads to continue our education for a better life. A bachelor’s and two master’s degrees later, I’m not so sure I’m better off than I was before. Saddled with almost $100k in student loan debt, I’m finding it difficult to justify my education.
In 1998 I embarked on my academic journey which lead me to the financial prison I live in today. In my early 20s I went to college to earn a degree in psychology. I loved taking classes and had high hopes for the future. I paid for these semesters through student loans. The government was quick to pay the entire tuition bill and then some, which I happily accepted.
I supported myself through college by working full time in an office as an administrative assistant. I couldn’t wait to finish my degree and tell Corporate America to go fuck itself. What I didn’t know is that a degree in psychology is just one of many steps to a career in the mental health industry. After volunteering at a children’s psychiatric hospital and working in a nursing home, I decided a career in psychology was not for me and went back to school for a masters in Human Resources. Once I earned my masters I was ready to take on the world but then soon discovered I hated human resources. Now what? I went back to school.
I enrolled in a master’s program for School Counseling thinking that this would finally be my salvation. I quickly went through all the courses and exams and then came upon the one year unpaid internship requirement of the degree. How would I support myself and do an unpaid internship? Should have thought of that sooner. Another $50k of student loans. That’s when I tapped out.
Today I work in an office doing marketing and making a decent salary; however I’m still eating ramen noodles, hitting the overdraft, and sacrificing a lot of things because I just don’t have the expendable income. Student loans follow you to the grave and not even bankruptcy will excuse them.
Kids enrolling in college today, heed my warning: if you go to college go to a state college, don’t incur too much debt, and choose a profession wisely. There will be a day when the lenders come to unmercifully collect and it’ll be sooner than you think.
The Headbanging Hostess
I decided to go to college at the last possible minute. I was going to be a rock star, what did I need college for? But I got bitten by the politics bug when the city threatened to cut the school budget (I don’t remember the exact amount, but it was peanuts compared to what school budgets are today). That, combined with the fact that I really had no plan in life (my Dad died when I was 16 and I now know that my Mom started deteriorating with early signs of Alzheimers right after that), I jumped into the college game blind and applied to UCONN.
I was of course rejected, I hadn’t taken any college prep classes. I dropped out of French, I weaseled my way out of Chemistry. (I thought I couldn’t do it. I really wish I hadn’t thought that now. But I stunk at math, I assumed science was another thing I stunk at.) Anyway, I ended up at Norwalk Community College. My first semester was $472 and the tuition was waived. I got money for books.
Halfway through my two year degree I made the mistake of going to a college in Rhode Island because a friend was there. It was awful! I was a PoliSci major and the first day of class one of the girls said, “I don’t understand how sitting next to someone Black is going to help you learn Algebra.” (I’ll just let that hang there.) One of my roommates had never seen a Black person up close until she went to college (another college, not this one populated with rich, white… assholes, there’s really no other way to put it). In an economics class, when asked what would happen if there were three men in a boat and only two pieces of bread, one student replied, “You have to get rid of all the ethnics!” I assume he meant ethics. The teacher never corrected him.
I quit after one semester and worked my ass off paying for it over the next two years and graduated from NCC one year off-schedule.
My big mistake was going to WestConn to study Theatre. I’d been re-bitten by that bug and, combined with the fact that I had a boyfriend I needed to get rid of…decision making has never been my forte, I guess. I ended up there for two years, not the greatest years of my life socially. I had zero boyfriends, I should have stayed with the dumb one I had home (but not really). I did very well in the theatre department, won a few acting awards and was sent off with a few monologues, a terrible headshot and dreams of greatness.
What a mistake! Here I am, 20 years later, I still haven’t been able to pay it off. I’ll be paying for the rest of my life. I worked as an actor for 13 years, but never made enough money to pay the bills. I worked dehumanizing jobs in restaurants and food service that barely paid for my existence. I’m 42 years old, I don’t own anything. I have some plays published and produced, some good acting credits (I was in a Yoko Ono musical!) but I ended up with none of the fame or success I dreamed of. I can’t blame it all on college. If I hadn’t taken care of my mother when she was dying from Alzheimer’s I know I’d be in a different place. But that’s another article.
If I could go back and tell me… “Vanessa, you don’t need to go to college to do theatre. You just need to go out and do it! Get on the train to New York and audition for everything you can, while you’re young and everyone else is wasting their time in college!”
Biggest mistake of my life, going to college for theatre. And who gave me money to study theatre and thought I’d be able to pay it back?
College costs way too much now. Truthfully I’m a good student. I could get into an MFA program, but what for? Who earns enough money writing plays to pay for an MFA? No one!
For the good of our country, we need to rethink higher education: who needs it, how little it should cost for those who do need it. Otherwise, frankly, we’re fucked. Even a theatre major can figure that out.
I would not describe myself as a political person, but I am a very sensible person. When I see shortcomings with our government and society, I cannot help but point them out and attempt to identify a solution. In this observational piece, I will be pointing out multiple issues that I have dealt with personally and how they affected me. The major concern being the student loan problem in the United States, which is overwhelming when compared to other countries.
I graduated high school as a starry-eyed, naive seventeen-year-old looking forward to challenging classes and intelligent discourse which is sorely lacking in most high school environments. Little did I know that I graduated at one of the worst times in American history.
The US was foaming at the mouth over the events of 9-11, and we had a President who not only knew nothing of economics but had no reservations about putting an entire country into financial distress.
Meanwhile the only advice I had to go on was of my parents and teachers hailing from the baby boomer generation which all regurgitated the same simple phrase, “Go to college, do well, and you will get a good job when you graduate.” And it was true, for their generation. I had no worries in the ‘doing well’ department. I enjoyed school, especially writing, so I went to college for English.
Both of my middle-class parents graduated with advanced degrees in English and found jobs directly out of college. Of course, it was in the ever-changing, dying field of news writing, but I still had high hopes and no reason to know any better.
We had no notion that when my parents spent all of their wages on their house and had nothing left to assist me, the Federal Government would only take their wages into account. My parents did everything they could to help my sister and me pay for school, including taking out a second mortgage and separate loans, but it barely grazed the surface of the cost of college, since neither of us were eligible for financial aid. This meant I was to take out student loans.
Though we are all brought up to listen to the advice of our elders, no one knew exactly how bad the economy was getting and how quickly tuition was growing. My father graduated with a PhD in English. His entire college career cost him a grand total of $800. Some may be wondering how that could possibly be. And although some of the extreme increase in cost may be due to more options and resources available to students, this is not the major reason for the increase.
The answer is: College Administrators. America revolves around the idea of capitalism. As soon as the schools realized they could make money off of the students, we all became little walking dollar signs. Administrators began to create complicated and unnecessary paperwork that only they could decode. In this way they would have job security, and they could make sure to be paid four times what college professors made. Whenever their job looked to be in danger, they would create even more paperwork. More of them creep up, along with their bureaucratic nonsense, every year making college all the more difficult to navigate for students. This is where all of the real money is going.
While I was at college, I did my best to save money and pay my way. I was a Resident Assistant to pay for my food and room and I worked two other jobs on campus along with a modest scholarship. I still did not have enough money to afford all of my books, so I made a friend in every class. I would photocopy, borrow, and even get people to read sections of books out-loud to me. I also managed to convince a group of students to act out plays in the library with me, so I would remember them for tests. Needless to say, I enjoyed every minute of college and graduated with honors.
But when I graduated, the economy had gone right down the toilet. I found myself with immense debt and no jobs in my field of study. I applied to everything, and I mean everything, even remotely related to writing. Surely my good grades, scholarships, publications, and stable work history would help me find something. Unfortunately, people did not want new college grads when there were a slew of jobless potential employees with actual work experience.
The baby boomers were unable to understand why their children were not finding jobs with the ease that they found them. A month after graduating, my parents were frustrated with me for not finding a job in my field, and forced me to work at Home Depot where I made $8 an hour while male counterparts doing less work made four dollars more than me. I was treated very poorly by sexist managers and patrons while trying to afford my loan payments.
This left me with the option of hating every moment of remaining at a labor-intensive, dead-end job, or heading back to school in the hopes that a higher degree would make me more employable. It was an easy decision to make. I continued my education, loving every minute of it, and graduated with honors again. I then became an adjunct professor making $12,000 a year with no benefits. Remember when I said college professors were not the ones making the big bucks?
Soon I discovered with a lack of funds, the Bush administration decided to sell their Federal Student Loans to private companies. When I signed up for my loans, I had agreed to a fixed interest rate of 3% which would be paid back in the terms of a Federal Loan agreement. It was not previously legal for the government to sell student loans. How was I or anyone else to know they would suddenly make it legal?
The private company, which no longer exists, upped my interest rate every few months until it was over 20%. They refused to let me consolidate my undergraduate and graduate loans which were originally all Federal Student Loans, and they demanded over $700 a month. Working as an adjunct, that would be over half of my yearly salary. They would not allow any other payments, aside from the full amount, so I was forced to go into deferment and watch my debt increase by the interest. Declaring bankruptcy was also no longer an option, because they passed a law saying it would not apply to student loans.
I had to quit teaching for nickels and dimes, and find a more stable occupation. I went to an Emergency Medical Technician course and became certified. At first I was working on an ambulance, saving lives for $11 an hour with no benefits. Meanwhile I was in desperate need of dental work and a tonsillectomy.
Eventually I made my way to work at a hospital, where I was still being paid poorly, but at least I had health insurance—though the cost of a tonsillectomy, a simple outpatient surgery costs $10,000 before insurance, leaving the recipient to pay thousands out of pocket. Work was hard, and while attempting to pay student loans along with the medical bills, I often found myself without money for food. I could generally afford one meal a day.
This brings us to the only reason I am able to eat full meals today. Obama’s administration came in and made it so the Federal Government had to buy back Federal Student Loans. Once they were bought back they were at a 6% fixed interest rate, and they were able to be consolidated. Programs were instituted such as income-based repayment plans, making my payments 15% of my meager earnings instead of over half. They also created a loan forgiveness program for people working in public service organizations. After ten years of payment, my debt would go away.
Now that there is student loan assistance and nationalized healthcare, my $60,000 student loan debt is no longer impoverishing me. Instead of my money going to a company that was created to make the rich richer, it can go towards a car, mortgage payments, and into circulation for the general population. After all of this, I currently work as an educator at a science museum, which is a much more suitable job for my skill set. The US still has a long way to go in order to become on par with other countries when it comes to education, but we are starting to realize that when we set up programs to help our students succeed, we are actually stabilizing the future of our country.
How has student loan debt affected you, fair readers? What do you think the answer is?