The Hopelessness of Student Debt

I feel despair and hopelessness over my student debt all the time.

This will come as a surprise to people over 40 who know me moderately well but is not even a little bit surprising to anyone with student debt, even those who have never met me.

I attended Sarah Lawrence College, at the urging of my parents, from 2006 to 2010. At that time tuition and everything else amounted to about $50,000 per year. My parents, responsible, loving, and ambitious on my behalf believed that not only would I do well there, but that a degree from SLC would lead me to great career success. They believed that the education I would receive and the connections I would make would be unparalleled, would really open up my future. So confident were they, the grandchildren of hardworking Italian immigrants, that they co-signed public and private loans to cover the cost of this prestigious education to the tune of about $150,000.

This is not to say that student loans were the only option we pursued. I, a lazy then-17-year-old, did a series of cursory searches for scholarships. I immediately became discouraged when I found that not only did the majority of scholarships pay out $5,000 or (more likely) significantly less, but that most required you to pay an entry fee. That, and I qualified for very few of them as a white girl from a middle class family with one parent already a college grad. My loving, responsible, and supportive parents had put away a college fund for me. But by the time I entered SLC that fund only amounted to about $10,000 – which just about covered room and board for my freshman year. Sarah Lawrence also kindly ponied up a few grand in financial aid. I was also put on work study, which guaranteed me the right to apply for, but not be placed in, an on-campus job which would pay about $7/hour and might give me 5 hours a week.

We exhausted every option and still had to borrow 20-30 grand each year.

At the time, I was 18. I had done poorly in my math classes for the last 12 years, hated numbers, and had no interest in understanding what the terms of my student loans were or how they worked. My parents, who were responsible, hardworking, and supportive, believed that going to Sarah Lawrence would be the best thing for my future. Besides, my dad reasoned, I would have my entire life to pay them off. Apprehensive but trusting that my parents had my best interests at heart and would never steer me wrong, I signed.

In the middle of my time at SLC, my mother sold her one-woman art consulting business and put the proceeds away in the bank, intending to live off that fat while she started a charity to provide baby clothing and gear to families in need. The federal government, however, did not know that because there is no where on the FAFSA to include such details. So going into my senior year, Sarah Lawrence cut my financial aid. We went back to the federal government and then to KeyBank to try to make up the difference. I was told that I had reached the “maximum allowable aggregate debt”. I had borrowed all that I was allowed to borrow. But what could I do? My senior year of college was starting in a few weeks. Was I supposed to give up right before the finish line? My parents tightened their belts and gave up much of my mother’s savings in a monthly payment plan. But that still wasn’t enough. My father went to Wells Fargo and secured the last few thousand dollars I would need to finish my education.

6.5% is a small and unthreatening number. That is, until it’s 6.5% of $10,000 or $20,000 or $35,000. 6.5% of tens of thousands of dollars accruing each month that I was in school, reading and writing and participating in class discussions and trying very hard to find people who might want to hang out with me. 6.5% (or sometimes more, or sometimes a little less) that was capitalized on at the time of my graduation. Capitalizing on interest means that the accrued interest is added to the original borrowed amount, and then interest is charged on that new, bigger number. In the case of my largest loan, that was 6.5% on about $91,000 on graduation day. $15,000 into paying that back my principal is now down to $87,000, give or take.

I graduated in 2010 after the crash, along with so many of my peers, and moved back home to live with my parents and search desperately for a job, any job. All while owing significantly more than I had borrowed.

Five and a half years after graduating from Sarah Lawrence, and six months after completing one semester of graduate school (for another $20,000 and nearly all of mine and my husband’s meager savings), I owe close to $200,000. I thought that maybe doubling down would get my annual salary above $40,000 but after one semester I just couldn’t justify continuing to spend. I can’t tell you the exact number right now because I think if I look at it I might throw up.

I’ve just started to pursue my dream, I’m sure very foolishly, of being a writer because doing otherwise feels like a complete betrayal of my own heart and of everyone who has ever loved or supported me. That, and I’ve spent most of the last year crippled by anxiety and depression in a way that has made working outside the home seem unreasonable, at least for now. But I’ve been doing a lot of therapy and self-care to work on that. And looking for any possible work-from-home job that might conceivably pay the bills while I try to make it as a writer. I’ve been embarrassingly grateful for every single copy-writing gig I’ve landed in the last two months.

Many people out there will still see me as an entitled, lazy, irresponsible, whiney millennial. I invite those people to try switching bodies, Freaky Friday style, with me or one of my peers for a little while and see how they do.

I feel hopelessness and despair all the time about my student loans, because when I look into my future everything I long for seems impossible. The child I could have, the home I could own, the small business I could start, the countries I could travel to, the projects I could fund for myself…all of them have been swallowed up by the black hole of my student debt. By the time I’ve paid everything back I will have paid for my education at Sarah Lawrence twice over or more…much more than the amount I paid them for the privilege of attending their courses and living in their dorms. It seems that every dollar I have yet to earn does not belong to me. Instead, it belongs to the private banks and the federal government, who are making 5 and 6 figure profits off of my adolescent dreams of becoming someone more than who I was.

They told me I was investing in my future. But here, on the other side of graduation and the first few years of my career, it seems I’ve traded my future away. My dreams and plans for tomorrow have been stifled. As a millennial living during the decline of American capitalism, I am statistically unlikely to earn more than my parents did. My quality of life is predicted to be lower. To me, these are not distant, depressing figures but my real life. I feel these lowered expectations deeply, no matter how hard I try to bring myself back to hopefulness using the magical power of positive thinking, it cannot change the reality of my circumstances.

I haven’t given up because I’m not ready to just lay down and die. I’ll keep working hard, keep pursuing my dream just like every 90s kid knows you should. The difference is that I know that whatever financial gains come of my hard work will not be mine, but someone else’s.

I’m not going to apologize for being a Debbie Downer about this. The power of positive thinking won’t change the fact that I’m going to spend my adult life paying the equivalent of the mortgage on my parents’ 4 bedroom house on a quarter acre in a nice suburban neighborhood – without increasing my wealth the way they did

This is what it’s like to be a millennial living with outrageous student debt. I and so many like me are living this financial nightmare and you should care because one day soon the American economy is going to depend entirely on us. How do you think that will go?

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