The Thing About Money, Part 3: Student Loans, or, How debt scares the hell out of me

(This is the third post in a six post series titled The Thing About Money. Click to read The Thing About Money, Part I.)

I have $43,188.99 in student debt.

$40,328 is principal, and $2,860.99 (or 7%) is interest. The only reason the interest is so low is because I made a few payments here and there while still in school. On $20,500 worth of loans, I have an APR of 6.6%. On the other $19,828, I have an APR of 6%. 

This amount of debt makes me sick to my stomach. 

Counting each and every cent. Image from pexels.com.

In my 32 years of life on this earth, I have never personally had a negative net worth past $2,000. That was in consumer credit card debt I accumulated while struggling to find a post-college job that paid a living wage. I paid that amount off soon after I got a new job, and I’ve been in the positive ever since–until I started grad school. My current net worth is in the negative $20,000s. In the words of Elizabeth Bennet, “How is such a sum to be repaid?” 

(Of course, that was about an elopement. And I don’t have a handsome and conveniently rich Mr. Darcy to dispatch thousands of dollars to my aid.)

I’m not alone. Collectively, students in the United States owe a total of over $1.5 trillion in student loans. Per NerdWallet, the “average U.S. household with student debt owes $47,671.” Undergraduates finishing up in 2017 owe an average of $28,650 each. And this number can change depending on the field you go into–I owe over $40,000, and I am in a subset of education that is not known for paying well (as is the field in general). Medical students owe, on average, almost $200,000 a pop. According to this article from 2015, social work graduates can owe upwards of $60,000 in debt and expect starting salaries of only $41,000. These are all essential fields. Unfortunately, not all of these fields pay well. 

And all of us in these essential fields have a story. Here’s mine.: 

My student loan debt was just to pay for my master’s degree. I was very blessed in that I didn’t need to take out loans to fund my undergraduate education. My biological parents split when I was three, and my mom and stepdad divorced when I was sixteen or so. As such, my mom was the only parent on my FAFSA. 

With a combination of grants and scholarships, my mom as the sole income provider for our family, working several jobs through college, and the decision to turn down my NYU acceptance for a more affordable in-state school (a decision which I regret only a little bit, but mostly not at all), I was able to graduate in 2009 with my BA in English, during the Great Recession. I bounced around a few minor jobs after that (including working for minimum wage for the first time since high school) and finally landed in South Korea, where I spent three and a half years teaching English to high school and college students. 

I’m confident that making the decision to move overseas is the only thing that helped me have a stable career trajectory in my twenties. 

After coming back stateside in 2014, I moved to New York City, where I worked at an artisanal nut milk company, a terrible for-profit medical school, and an international exchange nonprofit (that had a heavy endowment but, instead of paying its workers a living wage, threw us two big parties a year with all the free booze we could drink and acted like saints for it). While there, I started volunteering somewhere and discovered a deep passion for a field I hadn’t previously given a real look at. I threw myself into the volunteer work, and I deeply enjoyed it–but to do it professionally, I needed a master’s. 

It was 100% my decision to go back to school. By choosing the program I did (in-person at a private school with no online component), I knew I would be paying a bit more, but I thought it would be worth it. I chose an in-person only program because the curriculum and experiences required made it seem like it had more credibility to it* (although–surprise!–they added an online program in my second year, which had been in the works for multiple years, and which the school didn’t think worth mentioning to us). And while I am one of the lucky ones from my program that was able to find a full time job after graduation (although it took a cross-country move), a number of my fellow graduates are still looking. 

Most of my courses were taught by busy adjuncts who were professionals in the field but not professional educators. Some were taught by adjuncts who weren’t contacted by the university until a week before classes were supposed to start. Some were taught by adjuncts who didn’t hold the degrees for the program for which they were teaching. Some were taught by adjuncts who didn’t bother to show up on the first day of class (which, on a quarter system, is 10% of class time), who cancelled because they were sick and didn’t make up the class (instead touting it as some sort of favor to us), or who let us out after an hour of what was supposed to be a two-and-a-half hour class (two-and-a-half hours that we paid for, regardless of actual time spent). I mention this not to shit on adjuncts–after all, adjuncts make up the backbone of higher education and are often asked to teach under shitty conditions–but to show that, despite the astronomical tuition, I was not receiving the education that was advertised. Frankly, my education was not a priority for most of my instructors (although I can’t blame them–if you lack resources like time and money, you can only do so much). My university did not hold up their end of the bargain. As per the above linked article,

“If you are paying for a college education today, you are paying comparatively more money than previous generations have paid — nearly $70,000 in annual tuition, room and board, and fees at America’s most expensive schools — to be educated by a more poorly-resourced, poorly paid, and potentially poorly-motivated group of educators.”

– Dan Edmonds

So here I am, over $40,000 in debt, with a degree that some in my profession have started arguing only acts as a barrier to entry and shouldn’t even be a requirement for employment (although, for gainful employment, it most certainly still is). And for those of you who say I should have tried to get more scholarships and worked harder, please note that I applied for (and received) multiple scholarships as well as worked two to three jobs at any given time. During my last year, I worked full-time, went to school full-time, and worked a part-time job on top of that. And I still have negative $43,188.99 to show for it. 

The purpose of The Thing About Money series is for me to examine my relationship with money to understand why I have a hard time with it. In this instance, money is a heavy weight that is dragging me down with it. My student loans make me feel buried. That $43,188.99 plus future interest is getting in the way of my retirement (which we’ll talk about next week). It’s making me worry about ever saving up enough to put a downpayment on a house. It’s making me worry about how to pay off the loans and my rent next year (I live in a HCOL area for my job, and while thankfully this year’s rent is slightly subsidized, there’s no guarantee for next year). I have an emergency fund (once again, I feel the need to defend myself–I am a Good Poor!).

Is this debt the result of choices I willingly made? Yes. However, is this debt also emblematic of major problems with my university and the higher education system in general? Also yes. But as I feel powerless to change the system, I guess I just have to figure out a way to work within it. 

So that’s my story. What’s your student loan story? Feel free to include it in the comments. I’m sure it’s a doozy. 

*Please note that I am not claiming that all online degree programs are not reputable nor worth it. However, a recent study found that 53% of survey respondents thought that people learned less or much less in online degree programs as compared with residential ones. I never wanted my education questioned, so I went with a residential program. However, as explored above, perhaps that was a huge mistake on my part.

2 thoughts on “The Thing About Money, Part 3: Student Loans, or, How debt scares the hell out of me

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