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Question 2

Do you think that your college education was a good investment?

This story came in through our initial call out, when we asked, “Do you feel stuck?” Our guest blogger, Alicia S., is stuck overseas, unable to return home. She asked not to use her last name, given her status.

Alicia “in the middle of nowhere.”

I’m 28, and an economic refugee. I left the U.S. about two years after finishing graduate school, and I can’t, realistically, come back until the loans are repaid — which would be 15 years from now at the earliest.

I made a bad decision taking on the debt that I did, at 17, 18, and 19 years old.

I thought college loans were an investment, like a small business loan, that would pay off in no time. I thought the people in the financial aid office, employed by the university, had my best interests at heart. It didn’t occur to me that they had enrollment goals to think about.

Based on my knowledge of credit cards and home loans, I assumed that the bank wouldn’t give me money I couldn’t afford to pay back. I didn’t know at the time that the banks were legally exempt from the typical risks associated with loan making, and didn’t really care what I could or couldn’t afford. I didn’t have the right guidance, and I should have done more homework.

Cut to graduation: I was lucky to be immediately employed in my field. However, over the next two years I became increasingly despondent about the fact that my monthly net income of $2,100 would cover minimum loan repayments ($800), rent in a studio apartment ($500), electricity, water, internet, phone ($200), car insurance ($200), and less than $100 a week for food, clothes, medical care, and everything else in life.

This was my life: If the car needs a service, I eat ramen for the rest of the week. If I get sick and see the doctor and/or pick up a prescription, I eat ramen for the rest of the week. If I break my eyeglasses, I eat ramen for the next two weeks. I cut my own hair. I buy clothes second-hand.

I was, frankly, shocked, to be employed full-time and holding a graduate degree, yet living hand to mouth and passing over meat in the grocery store because it was too expensive. I was increasingly depressed by my prospects — with thirty years of loan repayments, even the idea of an eventual increase in salary through career advancement seemed like little hope. For years into the future, I was looking at saving $0.

I couldn’t afford to get married or have children. I could never afford to buy a house. I could never afford another car after the one I had died. I could never take a vacation. And perhaps most of all, I wouldn’t be able to take care of my mother, herself struggling to get by. This would be my life for the next five, ten, fifteen, thirty years — work to stay alive and pay Sallie.

This was a far cry from what I had envisioned for myself. As a first-generation college graduate, I assumed I would succeed in “pulling myself up by the bootstraps” and surpassing the quality of life my parents had experienced throughout their lives. That is, after all, the American Dream. I bought it — hook, line, and sinker.

So, in the end, I went overseas. I secured a job in my field in the Middle East, where my salary affords a much more comfortable living standard, extra debt repayments, savings, help for mom, and even a budget vacation every year. Where I live, there are lots of expatriates from Bangladesh, the Philippines, India, and other places, all of whom have left a lack of opportunity at home looking for better prospects abroad.

When I meet one of these folks, we are both struck to find ourselves here for the same reason.

I attended public universities, including two years of junior college, and worked the entire time I was in school. I did not attend an expensive private institution or spend my free time socializing. Six years of tuition, books, fees, and deferred interest, however, totaled almost $90,000. I was wholly ineligible for financial aid, because my parents earned too much money. Their actual contribution to my expenses, however, was $0 — not for a lack of desire to support me, but for a genuine lack of ability.

If I had really, truly, understood the costs of a university education way back then, I would have known that I’d be better off economically not enrolling in college. I might have become an entrepreneur instead of a professional. I might have spent a gap year pursuing Canadian residency, in order to access a more affordable education.

For now, I’m contributing to building another nation, working in a university where citizens attend all years of public tertiary education completely free of charge, including books. I always share my story with them, to underscore just how different things could be.


  1. gridlocked at 4:23 pm, October 3, 2012

    holy sh#t, this is so common, this is my girlfriend, this could easily be me if I continue with my education. What matters is my passion, my education is always a trade or professional degree. I love what I do and am saddened that these perimeters are placed around improving my skills through higher education. Of course, with a little discipline and creativity I can still achieve great things but what requires licensure, unfortunately, has no way around the hours needed other than being sure you take the cheapest path possible.

  2. Vincent Capone at 8:29 pm, October 3, 2012

    Great story – and the “brain drain” example of graduates moving overseas is a great example of a recent trend plaguing our nation. I too have been mulling over overseas work.

  3. Alicia S at 7:10 am, October 4, 2012

    Have you read the book “Leaving America: The New Expatriate Generation” by John Wennersten? It considers this trend in more detail, fairly interesting read. http://www.amazon.com/Leaving-America-The-Expatriate-Generation/dp/0313345066/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1349348933&sr=8-2&keywords=leaving+america