So today, I mark a milestone: I paid off the last piece of my student loans. The yoke is off my back, the mountain is off my shoulders – insert whatever metaphor you feel is appropriate for the occasion.
Let me make this clear: I did not do this alone. I did have financial help in paying it off. And I know my peers are not so lucky.
And for all the relief I feel at getting this particular burden off my shoulders, for all the spike that I can expect of my credit score once the bureaus process that this gigantic part of my financial life is, finally, paid in full – for all that relief, I feel like I’ve been cheated in the long run. I don’t regret my education, and never will, but if I have to ask if it was worth the 65K of debt I graduated with? No. It wasn’t. I shudder to consider the total amount paid back if I include the interest, but it’s still lower than the payment plan I have been assigned on graduation. I may’ve paid back a small fortune, but I also saved.
Overall, though, my feelings are mixed.
All my life, everyone older than myself always told me: get a good education, get a good job, and that’s the only way you’ll survive. I’ve been told, repeatedly, that Being A Professional is the only way to ensure any and all sorts of financial future for myself. I’ve been told that hard work gets me anywhere I want. I’ve been told that college is The Only Way to do this.
Right now, knowing that the hard financial road has been traveled and is at an end, I frankly feel that this is complete bunk. I feel like this narrative is a lie when applied to this generation. It’s just not feasible to push this on those of us who 1. don’t come from money, even a lower-ish tier of money, and 2. who have to shell out more than what they can afford just so they can come near having a bite at the apple, or 3. those of us who are better off working with our hands. Because really, that’s what it all boils down to in everything these guidance counselors and Well-Meaning Wilmas say: go to college or you’re worthless. Never mind that jobs don’t come from the sky and there’s not enough of them to go around, and there is always a need for manual labor, which is now looked down upon because…it’s not college.
While I’m all for education, and I’ll always be pro-college – especially pro-tuition free community college for everyone, because it does teach a person to see the world a little bit differently – I am definitely against people treating manual or vocational labor as “less than”.
I think that a lot of my peers, myself included, would’ve done a lot better if some of us were trained at a vocational school, taught to build and create and fix things. It would’ve ensured work for life – because really, we will always need plumbers and carpenters and builders – and it would’ve done so with next to no debt upon graduation. Thirteen years ago, when I was graduating high school, working for 30K a year could’ve still afforded one to live alone, even here in NYC, and right now, even the concept of living alone is becoming somewhat of a joke. In fact, I still wonder at times whether or not I should’ve just applied for the MTA and learned how to operate a train – if only because it would’ve cost me less in the long run in terms of loans, and who knows? I may have been a homeowner by now too.
When the previous generation went to college [I’m somewhere between Gen X and millennial, so by prior generation, I mean Baby Boomers], tuition didn’t go past about $4,000 per year, and even working as a waiter in a restaurant would afford one a house. And houses did not cost an arm, a leg, and an offspring back then, of that I’m sure.
Of course, this is no longer the case.
Tuition when I went to college, in 2003, was $19,000+ per year, and I got lucky because my school froze tuition rates if the student managed to graduate within 5 years. I did it in 4, because that was expected of me, my tuition stayed the same, I got scholarships where I could and loans where I couldn’t, of course, and I got the requisite 30K a year starter salary with my first job after graduation, only to discover that this pays diddly-squat in terms of bills. I could barely cover student loan minimums, and rent? LOL. That’s funny… yeah, except for the part where it totally isn’t funny when you can barely put food into your stomach because of loan payments. Yes, I lived at home – I couldn’t afford to live solo. And unless the RE bubble in NY bursts harder than the last time, I am coming to terms with the fact that I probably won’t live alone until I’m in my forties at least – if ever.
And right now, nine years after I walked across the stage and got my diploma, where am I, exactly? I paid out what could’ve been a mortgage, and for what? The past nine years, I’ve been aware only too keenly that I’ve been screwed on a financial level, and the bamboozle continues, because my alma mater’s undergraduate tuition rates have only continued to spike, and it seems like no one, apart from those of us who have gone through it, sees anything wrong with colleges and lenders reaping profits on the backs of an entire generation.
Because seriously: my alma mater’s current undergrad rate is over 40K a year right now. Tell me: who can afford that?! Do you still think there’s no problem with higher ed in this country? Do you still think that “oh, just go to college and get a job” is a viable piece of advice to pass on?”
Because 40K times 5 years is $200K of total tuition… and about half of that is the graduating debtload that the class of 2020 may look forward to.
I also feel horrible for the fact that people had to help me pay this back. Granted, they’re the same people who insisted I go to college to begin with, but nonetheless: how is it fair to them, too? How is it fair for the families of the students, families who want their kids to do well in life, to also be saddled with their debts? Because guess what: while they were my cosigners, it was also their obligation to pay back. And I’m certainly, 100%, not okay with it. Their insistence may’ve pushed me into the debtload, and one may argue that it’s only fair they share it, but not to me. If I’m the one setting out into the workforce, then it’s my obligation first.
“Don’t go to college if you can’t handle the debt!” people say. Really? And this is said in the same breath as “Go to college or else you’ll never find a decent job!” Pick one, people. Which is it? Do we go to college and get the so-called “better jobs” (which don’t really exist) or do we have to deal with your nitpicky bitching when we go into trade? Pick one. Or better yet, shut your mouths and do something about the fact that tuition is now more per year than a luxury vehicle and the financial stability that you enjoyed in the 60s-80s is gone.
Do you remember Bush’s finance reform laws in 2005? Here’s a little something they’ve done: they transformed student loans into a qualified debt. The loans now precede mortgages in terms of what’s on your credit report. The garnishment restrictions on student loans have been lifted, so that loan lenders can now garnish social security of senior cosigners, garnish wages earned of both the borrower AND cosigner – not tax refunds, because fortunately, it’s a different authority, and loan lenders don’t intersect with the Internal Revenue Service. Qualified debts are not covered in bankruptcy laws either; part of the tightening up of bankruptcy laws was to exclude student loans from being subject to cancellation or chargeoff in the event of bankruptcy.
So you know what all of that means? You are stuck with student loans until paid off.
If not for the fact that tuition at state colleges is now upwards of $15,000 per year, not counting room and board expenses, and if not for the fact that costs of living have hiked and salaries have not at all kept pace with inflation, then this particular regulation might bother me slightly less than what it bothers me now, and it bothers me a great deal that this is the case for millions of my peers. Even right now, with my loans paid off, I still keenly recall a talk I had with a mortgage broker, who told me plainly that unless my student loans are out of the picture, I can forget about a mortgage. So basically, until my student loans were finished, I was consigned to living like a college student still: hand to mouth. And again: I am one of the lucky ones. Because my debtload was, if I were to think about it, 1/2 of what some of the people in my graduating class had.
And still – nine years. Nine years of living in a sort of suspended animation. I cannot say in words just how grateful I am for my current job. I mean it. I seriously was losing hope for what my future would turn out to be before I got that job.
The way that my peers live is not even qualified to be called living. I can’t even call it survival, honestly. I don’t care what you believe the current generation lives like, but from my own experience, there’s nothing to take pride in when you’re watching the education that everyone told you to get eat up all of your take-home income. I’m not even talking about medical expenses right now. If you’re living at home, you save a few bucks, but what opportunity is there to build a living, build a life, when one lives at home and is barely making ends meet as it is? There’s no dignity in it, and don’t laugh: if you were in our shoes, you’d say the same thing. Like it as not, there’s a certain dignity in living on your own, in at least making ends meet on your own, and managing your own life. Where’s the dignity in hand-to-mouth for X years that it takes one to pay off debt?
If our parents’ generation has been trying to give us the comforts that it had claimed for itself in the wake of the Baby Boom era, it failed in doing so as a collective whole. Instead, there is a quagmire that has been created by the thirst for profit without consideration for the future ahead, or for the lives of the people who are supposedly to inherit that future. Tuition costs spiraled out of control, cost of living spiked, salaries remained largely static, and as such, the current generation is crippled with debt and survival is impossible unless you’re making six figures a year – and those jobs are not plentiful, no matter what people want to believe. How is that anywhere even close to the standard of the generation previous thereto? The prior generation could buy a house with minimal financial detriment and get a decent education without it completely killing their financial future for a decade. Us? Not so much. Tech advancement is great, but it’s not financial security.
“Get an education!” “Stop being lazy and get a job!” “You kids just want to play around on your phones all day!” You name it, I’ve heard it. All of it is old, old, old, and none of it is reconciling with the very real and VERY difficult road that my generation, and the generation about to enter the workfore, faces daily.
In reality, “we kids” are legal adults, and we want the same exact thing that our parents enjoyed when they were our age: reasonable costs of living, job security, and financial security for the future, and I frankly don’t think it’s asking too much.
It’s only right now that I can look forward to some sort of financial security, but I’m nine years behind in setting that up. It certainly feels like the opening scene to my sci-fi series, when a warrior walks through a post-war battlefield and sees the people slowly coming out to inspect the damage: I’m coming out from the crippling debt that I’ve been saddled with and inspecting the world around me to see what I can do now. It’s like stepping into bright sunshine after a prolonged period of darkness: takes a second to adjust.
But it is nonetheless comforting to know that this time, the future is actually here, and not something I think about late at night. It’s still a feeling, though, as though I’ve climbed out of the proverbial tunnel, and only now have discovered that the light is not, in fact, an oncoming train’s headlamp.
Think of the Langston Hughes poem, “A Dream Deferred”. My peers and I have a life deferred – a life deferred by however long it took us to pay off our loans. So what happens now? That is my question.