My Student Loan Story – Part II
I couldn’t afford the expensive test prep. courses for the LSAT so, while working as a barista in the cafe section of a Barnes & Noble, I devised my own study method, reading books and working out logic puzzles on my breaks. I wound up doing well, but because I took the test in February, I had to wait until September to apply and then I had to wait several more months to be accepted anywhere. My loans were on forebearance the whole time. I was making $8 an hour, and I couldn’t afford payments. But it was worth it, I thought, in the end. I got into Harvard Law School.
I remember the thoughts that ran through my mind at the time. I was in a state of disbelief. Finally, all of the studying was paying off! I was going to be somebody. Sure, I didn’t really want to be a lawyer, but graduate school had proved horrific, and nobody seemed interested in hiring a Gannon graduate with a BA in English no matter how many writing awards she’d won. I was tired of worrying every time my car broke down that I wouldn’t be able to pay to fix it. I wanted something more.
Harvard didn’t offer merit aid – i.e. no scholarships for high test scores or good grades. Everyone had high test scores and good grades. But they did offer generous grants so long as you took out the maximum federal loan money each year first – $18,500. They also expected me and my parents to contribute about $10000 a year together, and since that wasn’t going to happen on either front, I took out private loans to cover the difference.
While in law school, I did several different internships, trying to make something stick. My first summer, I worked at a liberal think tank, living in New York City for about three months on the roughly $5000 the school provided in funding. To afford this, I lived in a women’s only dorm where I had my own tiny room, but shared a bathroom and dining room with the other residents. My second year, I worked at legal aid for a semester, and then my second summer, like nearly every other Harvard Law Student, I went to work in a large corporate firm where I was miserable, but I made $2400 a week. I finally paid back my parents for the money they’d spent on my study abroad, and though I hated the work, I fully expected to take a job at the firm when I graduated. The only problem was, they didn’t offer me one.
I was devastated. Nearly every one who worked in a corporate firm got an offer at the end of the summer. Why hadn’t I gotten one? My firm didn’t explain except to say they thought I’d be happier doing something else. I learned later that they had been having financial problems that they hadn’t made us aware of. Since I had made a lot of money that summer, Harvard reduced my grant money, not knowing or caring that I had used that money to pay back my parents and other debts, and I was forced to take out more loans. My third year, I did another internship, this time working for a state agency, but I had come to the conclusion that law practice wasn’t for me. I didn’t like it, and I wasn’t particularly good at it. Unlike many other students, I didn’t have a high-paying job lined up after graduation. I had nothing lined up.
I did some soul-searching and decided that I needed to get out of the practice of law. But I didn’t want my nearly $100k degree to go to waste so I researched until I found a field where my law degree would be useful and where I thought I could be happy. I decided to become a law librarian, which required yet another Masters degree in addition to the law degree. I got a half-tuition scholarship to the University of Michigan and I took out loans and worked to pay off the rest. When I finally graduated, now 29 years old, I had two job offers, one in Los Angeles for $55,500 per year and one in Vermont for $48,000 a year. Since I expected to get engaged to my then-boyfriend, a Georgetown law student who wanted to settle in LA, I took the Los Angeles job. My last semester of library school, I had reached the limit on my private loan lending and had to pay most of my expenses with a credit card. My new employer paid for some of my moving expenses, and the rest were put on file with my employer to be paid back later. By the time I moved to Los Angeles to start working, I had $12,000 in credit card debt, an $1100 debt to my employer, and almost $200,000 in student loans.
I’ve been paying on those expenses ever since. Harvard offers a loan repayment program; this means that if you are working a job classified as “public interest,” they will forgive some of your loan debt, with some restrictions. As I noted earlier, my loan payments are about $1800 a month. Harvard gives me about $500 a month to pay toward that and the other $1300 comes from my paycheck. The relationship for which I moved to LA didn’t work out so I’m living alone, and the rent on my tiny studio apartment is $925 a month. After food, utilities, and the small amount of savings I sock away each month, there is almost nothing left. When my car broke down, I couldn’t pay to fix it and I couldn’t afford a new one, so now I take the bus to and from work. I don’t have cable or Internet access because they are too expensive, and I’m still wearing clothes I bought in college. Last month, I finally paid off what was left of my moving expenses, after a year and a half of living here.
As I said, I am one of the lucky ones. I have a roof over my head, food on the table, a loan repayment program, and a decent salary in a job I like. Still, when my car broke down and I had to sell it for $300 and start taking the bus, I couldn’t help but think, “How is this different from the situation I was in five years ago? The situation I went to law school to alleviate?”
We all make choices. I chose to pursue a public interest career instead of the lucrative law career that some of my friends pursued. I do freelance writing work in the evenings both to make extra money and because writing is my passion. I sometimes think that the hardship I live in, the massive amount of debt, the counting every dollar, is merely the fair price I have to pay for choosing the life I’ve chosen. And maybe that’s true. But if that’s the case, then why do we keep encouraging students to go to college to make better lives for themselves? Why do we keep telling them that they can do anything, and that if they just study hard enough, they will succeed? Is success only the privilege of being able, just barely, to make your loan payments each month? Is success merely the capacity to make the choice between selling out or struggling?
Perhaps. But if that’s the case, then I think we should be more honest about it up front. If what we mean when we say, “Anyone can succeed,” is really, “Anyone who’s willing to sacrifice their dreams and ideals to the market can expect to get paid well for that,” I think we should say that. But if we mean by “Anyone can succeed” that anyone can fulfill their hopes and dreams of contributing to society, then we should support that. If only rich kids are allowed to be writers or librarians or nurses or social workers, let’s be up front about that. And if that idea is repugnant to us, then let’s change it.