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The Opportunity Costs of Higher Education

NPR did an excellent story a few weeks ago inviting callers to share stories about what they have had to give up because of their student loans.  People spoke about taking jobs they hated, not pursuing lower-paying public service careers, and even not having children.  I’d love to hear more stories from my readers so please share in the comment section.  In the meantime, I’ll start:

1. A bedroom.  Since graduating with my MA, the only times I have ever had a bedroom have been when I lived with someone else.  I currently live alone in a studio in a shady part of town where my dog must be walked by sundown or not at all.

2. A bed.  In fact, I’m so concerned with finances at the moment that I opted to buy a half-broken futon instead of a bed when I moved into my new place because it was cheaper.  Nothing like sleeping on a lumpy “couch,” even while holding a professional position, to make one think, as per Gob from Arrested Development, “I’ve made a huge mistake.”

3. Buying new clothes.  As I type, I am wearing a shirt that I purchased, I believe, in 2007.  And that seems new-ish to me.  While I have to admit I’ve made a few “splurges” at Target since then, most of my clothes are now things I’ve had for years, hand-me-downs from my older sister (yes, I still get hand-me-downs), and thrift store finds. 

4. About 3/4 of my possessions.  I moved cities recently, and though my new employer paid some of my re-location expenses, it wasn’t enough to cover movers.  Since I couldn’t afford to make up the rest of the cost myself, I sold all of my furniture, gave away many other possessions, and shipped the rest, much of which was broken in the journey.

5. Self-esteem.  I used to think it was the coolest thing in the world that I’d gone to Harvard Law School.  But the further away from that time I get while still struggling financially, the more it just makes me feel like a loser when I compare myself to other people I went to school with.  Sometimes I just feel like screaming at someone, “I’m sorry I didn’t become a corporate lawyer!”  Because, honestly, sometimes it feels like I’m being punished for it.

6. Hope.  Not trying to get all dark here, and I’m not about to throw myself over a cliff or anything, but I really miss the version of me that felt like, with hard work and talent, anything was possible.  The fact of the matter is, a person can work hard all of their life and still wind up with nothing to show for it.  At 33, I still have plenty of time left to make some kind of an impact on the world, but I have to admit that, with each passing day, I become a little less confident in my ability to do so.  While this may not seem to relate directly to student loans, I think that other people who are facing what seems like insurmountable debt may understand what I mean. 

Those are just a few of the things I’ve given up, and, considering the stories I’ve read from others, I know that I’m actually doing ok in comparison.  And that is just plain sad.  Because if I am lucky that I didn’t have to include on this list: decent food, health insurance, a roof over my head, a decent credit score, my tax return (for those who have it taken to pay off defaults), and my social security check (again, for those who have had it taken to pay off defaults) – then our country is in serious trouble.

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