At seventeen years old, while applying to college, I had a fairly one-track mind: I was going to my dream school. I applied to one other school that had a relationship with aforementioned dream school, so that if something went wrong with my application, I could always easily transfer to dream school from the school I knew nothing about. My family also made me apply to one other school, which was basically picked out of a hat, and I half-assed that application. When decision time came around, dream school and back-up school both accepted me, but the latter provided a half scholarship, while the former provided no aid whatsoever. The third school’s application wasn’t completed correctly or in full (which tends to happen when you half-ass the application), so that was out of the running. I had a choice between going really, really far into debt at dream school or just really far into debt at backup dream school; I chose the latter.
At orientation in July, everyone with financial aid packages had to sit through a workshop. I was the only one paying attention in the room, a fact for which I will always be grateful. Despite what seemed like a generous aid package, I learned in that workshop that the school I had enrolled in was likely going to be a five-year program because of the unique nature of the school’s internships and co-ops. I sat in the room in a blind panic, incredulous that I had made such a major decision without ever knowing this basic component of the school’s mission. I began to do the math on how much debt I would be taking on in five years, even with my generous scholarship. I then did the math on my likely take-home pay upon graduation divided by twelve (oh, naive teenage Bethany, blissfully unaware of income taxes), and factored in how much money I would be paying in student loan payments per month. With those payments alongside basic living expenses, I realized I would be unable to do the little things, like eat or turn on the lights. At the end of that financial aid seminar I found my orientation leader and dropped out of college.
Several weeks later, I applied to the City College of New York during their walk-in admissions hours in August, and based on my transcript and SAT scores alone, was granted immediate entry. I spent my freshman year there, and spent less than $2,000 for my first year of college. I then transferred to the State University of New Jersey, Rutgers, where I obtained my BA on time, with about 10 percent of the debt I would have accrued at my initial college. In order to accomplish that, I worked full-time between two jobs while also going to school full-time. If I had to describe by college experience in one word, it would be: exhausting. I’ll add one more descriptor: miserable.
And yet, upon graduation, I not only had a minimal debt load, but also a strong sense of accomplishment and a killer work ethic, which I spent most of my first interviews touting. Despite graduating mid-recession in 2008, I had several entry-level job offers right out of the gate with my BA in History and Jewish Studies from a state school.
Eight years post-graduation, I’m nearing the finish line with my last loan payments. I have different friends who made different life choices, and those choices have saddled them with tens (and even hundreds) of thousands of dollars in debt. The following might make them feel a bit better:
Fox News reported last week, “The Government Accountability Office announced that at least $108 billion in student loan debt will be forgiven in the coming years . . . The move leaves taxpayers ultimately on the hook for the repayments in question. The panel noted that President-elect Donald Trump may also forgive a portion of students’ debt.”
Knowing my story, can you imagine how I felt about the news? Ripped off. And furious. Not only did I forgo anything resembling an ideal college experience in order to afford it, but I also worked to the point of actual collapse one finals week in order to pull consecutive triple-shifts while waitressing, studying, and paper writing. Friends who graduated with excessive amounts of (optional!) loans did so for two reasons: they felt they “deserved” a better college experience, or they were obtaining advanced degrees which had vastly higher earning potential than my BA in liberal arts. We all made decisions based on the information we had at hand; and to change the rules of the game afterwards isn’t just unfair, it’s unjust. What lesson does that teach future college students? Namely: that a signatory note isn’t a promise, but fungible depending upon which way the political winds are blowing.
Had I known my student loan debt would be forgiven, I would have made different, far more extravagant choices. Who wouldn’t? If you know you aren’t paying for dinner, you order the steak, not the salad. The same rules apply to big life decisions like college. But college students need to learn that decisions have consequences and that money doesn’t grow on trees. While the consequences of decisions regarding student loans may be dire for some, all major financial decisions in life carry risks, and college isn’t too early for young people to start learning that important lesson, and to plan accordingly. Do we really want to nurture another generation of Americans who take out loans they can’t pay for, because they think the world owes them a bailout later?