Student loan debt: How I got in deep

My mother was quadriplegic by the time I was in high school. My dad was a real estate agent who worked on commission, so he worked long hours to make ends meet. As a result, I took on a lot of responsibility at a young age.

I cooked and cleaned and did all the grocery shopping. I did the laundry and paid the bills (in the “balancing the checkbook and writing the checks” sense, not the earning money sense). I took my mother to the bathroom, fed her, and tracked her pill regimen. And most importantly, I believed that a college education was a good value.

I knew my parents couldn't afford to send me to college, and I wasn't allowed to have a job because of my responsibilities at home. So in lieu of saving for college, I threw myself into everything school had to offer.

I was salutatorian. I was on the dance team and the academic team. I was secretary of the service club and president of the math club. And it worked: not only did I get out, I graduated from college with a 4.0. Then I went on to get an MA and a PhD. Unfortunately, I got $100K in debt to go along with it.

I mention this only because it begs the question: what leads a (relatively) smart person to make almost ten years' worth of poor financial decisions? As immoral as universities may be, there's more to any individual's decisions than external influence.

Undergrad: An Auspicious Beginning?

When she was young and healthy, my mother had a full ride to Boston University. She dropped out because she wasn't doing well in her pre-med classes; what she really enjoyed was writing. I remember asking her, “Why didn't you just change your major?” She said it never occurred to her.

She eventually did get an Associate's degree from the local community college. However, she always regretted not completing a Bachelor's degree. Her experience led her to believe that the best degree was the one that you finished. She also believed that if you picked something you enjoyed, you were more likely to do well and be happy.

When I started thinking about college, my dad said “smart people major in business.” He suggested, “not that I'm telling you to follow in my footsteps, but female real estate agents make a lot of money.” My mom would nod sagely at his advice. Then after he left the room, she would stage-whisper, “do whatever makes you happy!”

I attended a state school, since the Florida Bright Futures lottery scholarship paid for 100% of my tuition and a book allowance. I was a National Merit Finalist. I received Pell grants and a variety of other scholarships. Since my education was paid for regardless of major, I followed my mom's advice and did what made me happy. I was a creative writing major and a psychology minor. I worked as a server and a tutor at the writing center. As a result, I graduated with no debt.

Grad School: The Downward Spiral Begins

I was intimidated by the thought of graduating and getting a “real job.” Instead, I decided to keep doing what I had always been successful at: school. I started an MA in creative writing. I also worked on campus 35 hours a week, teaching and tutoring. However, graduate tuition was expensive. Luckily, Stafford was there to fill the hole. I knew it was a loan, but I'd never borrowed any money before. I didn't have a concept of what borrowing really meant in terms of paying it back.

During this time I loved my job so much that I decided I wanted to run a writing center. My boss had a PhD in rhetoric and composition. I researched programs, applied to three, and accepted an offer from a top five program. It entailed moving across the country, which I couldn't afford; I wouldn't get financial aid until fall. Enter credit card debt.

The cost of living in my new city was also much higher. Again, Stafford and Visa filled the hole (though there were still a couple of weeks between moving and financial aid kicking in where I didn't wash my hair because I couldn't afford shampoo).

Yes, I was taking out more loans. But I was only making $14,000 a year and my paychecks were $750 apiece. The average starting salary of $50,000 was three and a half times what I was making. That could only mean my paychecks would be three and a half times bigger. Right?

Somehow the fact that this $14,000 was spread over nine months instead of twelve didn't seem significant. Taxes and payroll deductions for things like health insurance weren't even on my radar. I also don't recall a single time when I saw a total of how much I'd borrowed until my degree was almost complete.

Graduation Approaches: I'm in Over My Head

Even when I saw my total of about $100,000, it was poor math all the way. I thought, Okay, I was in grad school for eight years. That means I borrowed an average of $12,500 per year. I was also making $14,000 per year during that time, so my average income was $26,500 per year. But soon I'll be making $50,000. That's twice as much! This is no problem.

My program also claimed it had a 100% tenure-track job placement rate. It didn't occur to me that this couldn't be possible until after I was advanced to candidacy and took a job search class. Then, this statistic was amended to “100% of students who wanted to be on the tenure track ended up with tenure-track jobs.” Who doesn't want tenure?! I thought. This won't be me. This is no problem.

I did know, of course, that getting a PhD in the humanities wasn't going to make me rich (although the professors in my program all had 3000+ square foot homes in the nicest area of town). But it was more important to be happy than to be rich. Besides, I grew up poor. I was familiar with it. It didn't sound scary.

Then I went on the job market. My hottest lead turned out to be in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and I had a few realizations. I didn't want to live 200 miles from the nearest urban center. Not only that, I couldn't even if I wanted to: Jake and I had been dating for over a year. Our relationship was getting serious enough that he needed to be a factor in my plans.

By this time he'd graduated from law school and had a job making $90,000 per year. He was traumatized from the bar exam. The thought of taking another one only a year later gave him cold sweats. Even if he was willing to do it, he couldn't afford to make much less. A salary of $90,000 a year would be impossible to come by in a tiny rural town. Now my job search was what they called Geographically Restricted. That's academic speak for “it's your own fault if you don't end up on the tenure track.”

Suddenly, Unexpectedly

So I moved to Jake's city and geared up for another year on the job market. I got a full-time administrative position in summer 2008, right before the economy tanked. The week after they hired me, my institution implemented a hiring freeze. Six months later, they instituted furlough.

I combed the national job lists in my field, but I was Geographically Restricted. Even if I wasn't, it was one of the worst job markets in memory (and memory didn't have a lot of good years anyway). And then, there was the unexpected — though, given that I think I'm psychologically predisposed to happiness, maybe I should have expected it.

It turns out I LOVE my job. I love the work I do and the people I work with. I love the city I live in (even if it's 109 degrees outside right now). I have family in the area. Jake grew up here. At this point, he has over five years of business connections here, and I have four.

At some point, the the life I was living “for now” had become The Life I Want to Live. I have a ten minute commute. I leave work at 5 p.m. every day and don't need to think about it until the next morning. I don't check email during my off hours. I don't work in the evenings. I have pets, I am a hobby chef, I read novels. I think I would have enjoyed the tenure track, but I don't need it to be happy.

I just need to get our financial situation under control so I can keep living this life.

What About You?

This is my story. This is only my story. I cannot speak for others with student loan debt. But I know many, many people with high student loan debt (including lots of folks with totals higher than mine). So I know you're out there, fellow student loan debtors!

Let's build on last week's discussion (go check out the comments there as well!). What's your situation? How is it different than mine? How is it similar? I am especially interested in:

  • Your total student loan debt
  • What degree(s) you have
  • When you went to school
  • Whether anyone talked to you about student debt or the job prospects in your field
  • Whether the information you received about student loan debt or the job prospects in your field was accurate
  • What you wish you had done differently/advice for others
  • How you're dealing with your debt

There are obviously many decisions I could have made differently. It's undeniable. But since I can't go back in time and make different decisions, I'm declaring a statute of limitations on regret. Plus, I'm taking responsibility for my errors in judgment and paying the loans back. I have to, since you can't discharge student debt in bankruptcy.

However, as Robert Brokamp pointed out, there are systemic problems with student debt in this country (check out this paper for some facts on six-figure student loan debt). Those of you who have been through the system, how would you change it?

More about...Debt

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