I’ve been listening to a new podcast, Borrowed Future. It’s a podcast by the Dave Ramsey network and it’s about the U.S. student loan debt crisis, and whether or not college is even worth it. Having attended a four-year undergraduate university, and completing my masters all with student loans, this podcast has brought up a lot of topics that I’ve been debating for a while.
I’ve listed my grievances with the college admission process already in my blog Nothing New with the Varsity Blues. So this will mainly be about paying for college.
I could list a bunch of statistics about how many students are in debt in the US, how many are defaulting every day, or even just how much the average student owes. Those are all incredibly important. But for this selfish post, I’m just going to focus on my side of this issue, without bringing in the technical numbers just yet.
1. School Pressure
One of the themes the podcast covers is the pressure students feel from their high schools to go to a four-year university, as well as pressure from their peers or counselors or parents to attend a pricy school, even if they aren’t exactly sure what they should study. When I first listened to this, I thought “Okay that’s a flex.” I mean, yeah anyone can blame that they didn’t know that there were community colleges, or gap years, et cetera as their excuse for taking out loans. I initially wrote it off as a cop-out excuse.
But then I thought back to my own high school, and my own maturity level at that age. First of all, my high school prided itself on having 99.9% acceptance and attendance at a four-year university after graduating from high school. They would send out a map of the United States and show the percentage of students attending universities in each state. Then in a small gray box in the corner, there would be those either undecided or attending community college.
It seemed like such a failure to attend community college. And a gap year wasn’t even something I thought about until after my first year of university when I was about ready to drop out anyway. The thought was that your high school years would be such a waste if you didn’t get accepted into a university or college. Or, if you took a year off there was no way that you would go back and finish.
If someone had told me that now, I would have laughed and called them on their bluff. But that’s the whole thing right there. I’m almost 30. When those decisions were being made I was 17 years old.
What did I know about anything? Now, I’ve traveled, lived in a different country, gotten married, started a job that isn’t in my career field, and I’ve dealt with “adult” decisions (#adulting). When I was 17 I was being forced to understand these decisions without the maturity level of being able to fully comprehend them. Sure I had a part-time job and thought I knew the value of a dollar. But in reality, I wasn’t paying rent, I didn’t have any obligations other than school and work, and at the very minimum, I didn’t even allow myself time to really understand what I wanted to study.
I’m still not going to blame everything of my situation on “Oh I didn’t know there was another option”, but it is a valid point. When our high schools, school counselors, and peers care about nothing except for which four-year college you are getting into and what colors you are going to wear in the fall, it’s easy to think that that’s the only way.
When there is not even a discussion on gap years, technical or vocational schools, or getting your general education requirements done at a community college, it’s hard to imagine other avenues. You don’t know what you don’t know. And when we trust our schools to be the holders of knowledge, and the guiders in our future, it’s a huge disservice to not supply all the options.
2. Understanding what to study
I remember when I was applying to schools, I was struggling to figure out what I would even study. I applied to three schools, ultimately; two of them for music, and one for political science. I didn’t have the best grades, so I thought a music degree would be my best bet at getting into a university. I made myself believe that I would graduate with a music degree and figure it out from there. This is setting aside that I really enjoyed learning about marketing and psychology. Two things I only figured out after shadowing my dad at work for a day. All of this, of course, was ignored.
When I went to school I ended up changing my major more than four times: Music degree, African Studies, Gender Studies, Political Science. I finally landed on International Securities and Persian Language. Two things I never even knew about in high school. Now of course, I have a huge appreciation for them.
Then I took a year off after graduating, and I moved to Turkey. While I was there, I started my Master’s. Why? Because I knew that my English teaching job was going to mean nothing coming back to the US, and I had to start paying off those loans eventually and looking towards finding a job, ideally with the government, when I got back to the US.
However, the more I think about university and studying, and the possibility of going back and getting yet another degree, the more I think of what I’m actually interested in. Yes, people change as they grow older, and there is no way that I could know if I would have come to this same conclusion if I hadn’t gone through the study programs that I did go through, but even for just my Master’s I think I should have taken more time before beginning.
But another factor was that I knew if I went back to school, I could defer paying back my undergraduate loans because I would be back in school. Stupid, I know. This leads me into the next topic, not understanding student loans.
3. Not understanding student loans
I am lucky. I have a family that paid my first four years of college. I remember crying in the kitchen when I realized how much school was going to be. I remember feeling the weight of the financial burden, but I don’t think I truly understood it.
After my third year, I took out my own student loans to pay for some summer study programs outside of my university. I went through my bank, USAA, to what they recommended. It’s the only bank I’ve used so I trusted what they thought to be a good student loan provider. So I signed up with none other than Wells Fargo for my first very own student loan.
However, I didn’t realize one key thing. Federal student loans are not the same thing as private student loans. So even though my Wells Fargo loan was labeled “student”, legally it could not be defined as a true student loan.
I wish I could say I knew anything about consolidating student loans, and actually I’m glad I didn’t, because I probably would have made the mistake to consolidate my private and federal loans together (which is a big no-no if you are applying for the Department of Education’s Public Student Loan Forgiveness program).
So now I was about to graduate with federal and private loans. However, since the repayment hadn’t started up yet nothing hit me. Plus my parents had agreed to pay for my federal loans for undergrad, so all I had to deal with was the small (in comparison) private loan.
Fast forward to today.
Now I’m working full time, I have a great job, with benefits, and even student loan repayment options. I have the ability to apply for the PSLF in 7 years, and then I can actually be done with it all. On paper, that looks great. But that isn’t really the whole truth.
I don’t want to be working at my job for another 7 years. That sounds very stubborn and spoiled, but that is only the half of it. But, I know that I cannot, in good conscience, start a family with this much in student loans. So if I want to buy a house, start a family, or even dream of having a retirement, I have to figure out a way to get these student loans repaid.
So I’m working on it. I’m doing the side hustle game, and trying to take ownership and responsibility for my loans. I don’t blame anyone, and I have no regrets about the loans I have taken. I just think that this is a good conversation to have, if you have kids in high school especially.