Most of us who attend college these days have to take out student loans and then spend years mired in debt, trying to pay off the costs of their education. I am no exception.
The ironic thing is that I nearly escaped this trap. I was this close when I blew it.
You could say that I had it made. My parents were teachers and school administrators for years, were frugal and saved their money, and made it clear that they would pay my college expenses and those of my two sisters.
As you may imagine, education was near and dear to my parents’ hearts. From earliest age, they planted the seed in our brains that all of us were going directly from high school to college, no two ways about it. We lived in a solidly middle class enclave, and nearly all the kids with whom we associated at school had similar college plans. Not college dreams, mind you. College plans. We vaguely heard about kids who went to work straight out of high school or who went into the Armed Forces. For us, however, there was a direct college preparatory path into the halls of academia.
In the case of my sisters and myself, college was far more than an abstract idea or a simple expectation. From our elementary school days on, we understood what college was all about because we lived it. My parents were always going to school. At the age of four, my father bought me a toy typewriter because I wanted to be just like Dad, whom I observed, day after day, typing his master’s thesis on a battered manual typewriter in the corner of our New York City apartment. When I was in fourth grade (and my sisters were in second grade and kindergarten, respectively), we had a babysitter one night a week so that my parents could run out of their jobs and straight to class. Now that we lived in the suburbs, the drive to the college was two and a half hours round trip.
Then there were the summer classes. By the time I was in junior high, my mother was working on her master’s degree and my father was on his way to a sixth year certificate in educational administration. All of us would wake up at the crack of dawn to head up north to the college. My sisters and I would amuse ourselves on campus while my parents were in class. We’d walk the tree-lined paths, chill out in the library, play board games in the student lounges, beg my father for quarters to raid the vending machines. I would pretend I was a college student by researching topics in history and geography and writing papers on what I had learned. I thought it was the coolest thing to stretch out beneath a tree with a book. No one bothered the three of us, and many of the professors recognized us. “There go the Smith kids.”
One summer, my mother had to take a class in entomology at the college’s field campus in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. This was an even longer drive, but at least it was only one day per week. My father didn’t have a class there, so he would take my sisters swimming in the pond while I, a fat klutz and certified water hater, holed up somewhere with a book. Back at home, we’d help my mother get a good grade by catching butterflies, grasshoppers and beetles for her to preserve and mount on pins in her insect collection.
I would burst with pride when my mother was doing research in the college library and asked me to find a particular book for her. Familiar with the Dewey decimal system from our public library, I quickly learned to navigate the college’s Library of Congress cataloguing system. We watched my mother tip-tap her papers, and eventually her doctoral dissertation, on her Smith-Corona electric typewriter.
College was in my blood.
All three of us ended up attending the State University of New York, paid for in full by mother. (By this time, my parents had begun managing their finances separately — and they’ve now been married for nearly 62 years!) As my wife frequently reminds me, I had the kind of advantages that many others do not.
After college, I worked for almost seven years before deciding to attend graduate school full-time. Once again, my mother fully encouraged me in my plans, agreeing to pay for me to attend the best graduate school that I could get into. Sounds like a dream, right?
For a while, it was. I embarked on a three-year course of study at a small private college in New England. There was the tuition, obscenely expensive textbooks, rent, food and the costs of maintaining my car. My mother paid for all of it.
When I had one year left to go before obtaining my degree, it all fell apart. A situation developed that I handled badly and from which I have never been able to financially recover.
Here’s how it all went down: Just after I completed my first year of grad school, my mother accepted a position as superintendent of schools in a tiny school district in upstate New York. She rented an apartment there and made the eight hour round trip to visit her house near New York City on the weekends. By the time I finished my second year of grad school, my mother decided that she would like to buy a house in upstate New York and, eventually, retire there. (She never did, instead retiring to California to be near her grandchildren.) She planned to purchase a large house that had plenty of room for me to move in with her and that had a separate office wing for me to set up my own business. Talk about having everything handed to me on a silver platter!
There were just a couple of small problems. For one thing, I was thirty years old and didn’t want to live with my mother. And for another, I didn’t want to set up my own business.
Well, you can figure out how this ended up. I broke the news to my mother that I had other plans, to which she reacted by withdrawing all financial support. But I still had one year of school left before graduation. What to do?
The most sensible course of action, I decided, was to quit school, get a job and move on. This, however, proved to be problematic. Without the graduate degree, there would be no professional job for me. I thought I’d go back to working as a typesetter or proofreader, but the economy had tanked and there were no jobs in that field to be found. I answered every ad in the newspaper for clerical positions, anything on which I could support myself. I had no luck whatsoever. The only job I was offered was in fast food at a subminimum wage that would not pay my rent. And so, as much to avoid homelessness as anything else, I took out student loans to get me through my final year of school. All these years later, I can still see myself sitting alone in the grad school lobby, agonizing over this decision.
In retrospect, I should have told my mother what she wanted to hear; later, I could have reneged on my promise and there wouldn’t have been much she could have done about it. But I’ve never operated that way. I have a thing for honesty that has screwed me over royally more than once.
There were other factors involved as well. I felt terrible about wasting two years of hard work. I knew it was now or never, that I’d never be able to cobble together enough courses at night to earn my degree. Additionally, I was invested in the school’s culture, stupidly being unwilling to leave behind trappings that, in the long run, did not matter at all. It didn’t help that, at the time, I had a girlfriend who threw histrionic fits at the thought of me living with my mother forever. If only I’d had half a brain, I would have gotten in my car and driven to Alaska.
In the intervening decades, I have never ceased to regret my decision to take out those student loans. In the end, I graduated but was never able to find a position in my field anyway. Eventually, I was able to make my way back to working as a desktop publisher.
I will be paying on those loans for the rest of my life. My experience has included defaulting on my student loans, having them reinstated at lower interest rates, obtaining forbearance during two periods of unemployment, combining loans, being mercilessly dunned by telephone collectors and having my wages garnished.
Unlike other types of consumer credit, student loans have the distinction of being non-dischargeable in bankruptcy. If this were not so, it would be easy to attend college for free by taking out large student loans and then declaring bankruptcy upon graduation. If you are a low-wage worker, you can have your monthly payments lowered (or even temporarily reduced to zero if you become unemployed), but the interest on the amount owed continues to accumulate. After a while, the compound interest becomes so huge that, short of winning the lottery, most of us can never hope to repay the debt.
One good thing about student loan debt is that it does discharge at the end of the life of the debtor. The idea, I’ve been told, is that no education is ever wasted and that it is useful in any type of job, even if the student never works in the field in which the degree was conferred. Because education is not transferable to another, however, the benefit obtained by the money borrowed ends with the death of the borrower. As I took out my student loans many years before I was married, I alone am responsible for my debt. It is comforting to know that the debt will be forgiven when I die, and that my wife will not continue to be saddled with payments after my demise.
Considering my difficult experiences with repaying student loans for a single year of education, I can’t imagine what hopelessness must descend upon those who took out loans to finance four to eight years of college.
But I have learned one thing in the process. Regardless of the mistakes of one’s youth, we must go on. Sure, we’ve made other financial mistakes over the years. My wife and I have had our little dances with credit cards. With the aid of her superb money management skills, however, we have managed to become nearly debt-free without declaring bankruptcy. I say “nearly,” because those student loans remain. They will never go away.
It makes me rather sad to hear people say “I can’t do this, I can’t do that…I have student loans, you know.” One of my favorite bloggers has posted that she is planning to defer or renounce an opportunity to pursue a dream because she would need to stop working for a while and can’t do that with $50,000 of student loans. I have unsuccessfully urged her to reconsider this decision, reminding her that loan payments can be reduced or suspended. And when she achieves her dream, those good old loan payments will still be there for her to begin making again.
After all, student loans eventually go away when you die. And you only live once.