My Student Loan Story – Part I
By some estimations, I am one of the lucky ones. I went to some of the best schools in the country, I have a good job in a field that I may not have dreamed about but certainly respect, and I am in no danger of winding up on the streets any time soon. Yet each month, as I write checks totalling nearly $1800 for my student loans instead of, say, repairing my broken-down car, I can’t help but wonder, “What was the point?”
I grew up in a working-class family that moved around a lot. Most of my life was spent either in a trailer park or in rented houses in small towns and cities in Pennsylvania, New York, and South Carolina. My father was a postal worker and my mother was mostly a homemaker though she did work retail now and then to pick up extra cash. They supported four kids on about $40,000 a year, and though there was always food on the table, there wasn’t much left over after that. My parents made two things clear to us as we were growing up: 1. We had to go to college if we were going to make better lives for ourselves and 2. We were going to have to pay for it ourselves.
Of all of my siblings, I took these lessons the most to heart. I was the studious one in the family, nicknamed “The Scientist,” even though my interests and talents lay more in reading and writing than in dissecting or inventing. We didn’t get an allowance, but when money came my way in the form of birthdays or Christmas or even a dime found on the street, I hoarded it. I remember my mother laughing as she repeated to aunts and uncles what I had told her at 10 years old: “I’m saving for college.”
As I grew older, I became less adept at saving my money, but I continued to work hard in school. I remember learning what the word “valedictorian” meant when I was in the ninth grade. As soon as I heard it, I wanted to be it. And I was, although I had to share the honor with four other students in my high school since we didn’t have Advanced Placement courses and there was no way to outshine them. Still, I managed to stand out in other ways. I got the highest score on the SATs of anyone in my graduating class, which won me the honor of riding in a Ferris wheel on television with a local sports reporter. I was voted most likely to succeed and pretended not to care, wearing a Pearl Jam t-shirt and a flannel shirt in the accompanying yearbook photo. I won writing contests and I was one of the top scorers on our school’s Academic Decathlon team. As you can imagine, popularity was one area in which I was weak. But I didn’t care. Education was my ticket out of Western Pennsylvania. I believed that.
I believed it so firmly and had so little good advice that I applied to only two colleges. I dreamt of going to NYU, living in Greenwich Village, writing a novel by the time I was 22, becoming a literary celebrity. I got in, and even though tuition was around $30,000 a year, I fully expected that I would go. I knew my parents didn’t have much money, but they had used that excuse on my older brother and he’d still gotten that skateboard when he was 12, right? Besides, I was a National Merit finalist. They had to help me out.
NYU offered me a $13,000 a year scholarship. Back then (I graduated high school in 1996), the most a student could take out in federal loans was $2500 for the first year. I was awarded a second-tier National Merit scholarship that would have provided an additional $4000, I think, for my first year. That left my parents with a $10000+ bill, just for the first year, or 1/4 of my father’s salary. Theoretically, they could have taken out a PLUS loan, but with three other college age children to help out and no home equity, that was simply more than they could do.
I cried, but I still believed in education, and I wound up going to my backup school, Gannon University, which offered me a full tuition scholarship, but no room and board. I took out loans for the latter and worked part-time on the side. I studied abroad in Oxford and Paris, which my parents paid for on their credit cards; I took out more loans to pay them back some of that money. I graduated a semester early, in December 1999, with an English Degree (employers are looking for people with good communication and writing skills, I was told), a 3.87 GPA, and about $20,000 in loan debt. I went to graduate school at Penn State for a semester, taking out another $5000 to pay for the car I needed to get back and forth to school. Then I became severely depressed and dropped out. I wasn’t too worried, though. I had a college degree, and I had wracked up more writing awards in college. I was sure I’d be able to find a good job.
I lived in State College, PA for two years, working variously as a cafe barista, a bank teller, and a pharmacy technician. I got turned down for multiple jobs doing things like managing a local dance company, working as an administrative assistant at a naturopathy college, and even selling books. I got fired from a telemarketing job after three weeks because I wasn’t selling enough. My student loans were on forebearance, gathering interest so that I could pay rent and utilities and car insurance and credit card bills. I wrecked my car and shortly thereafter, my then-boyfriend wrecked his, and my parents sold us their old car for $500 and co-signed our lease so we could move into an apartment closer to our jobs. I was miserable, so I did the only sane thing a liberal arts graduate who couldn’t get a job would do – I decided to go to law school.