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Question 0

Do you feel stuck?

Morgan Derby

When I started my undergrad career in 2005, Macalester was ranked as one of the best liberal arts schools in the nation. When I graduated in 2009, I didn’t personally know a single classmate who had a job right out of college. Today, many of the people I know — myself included — are still working jobs they took two or three years ago because it was all they could find.

On the whole, my financial status that first year out of school, when I was either un- or under-employed, can be summed up by the monthly shamefaced begging of my parents for “one last time … I hope.” It was exhausting for everyone.

My lack of full-time employment had other, unexpected consequences.

Not having health care for a year was particularly fun. I couldn’t go to the doctor for medicine when I thought I had strep throat; later, I couldn’t go to the emergency room when my finger got crushed by a door at work. The one thing that was better was the birth control: Planned Parenthood’s sliding scale meant that I could get birth control that I could afford — ten dollars a pack instead of the fifty dollars a pack I spent under my employer’s insurance until recent legislation made it FREE.

Today, I still don’t know how, if ever, I’m going to be debt free. I’m nearly 26 — entering the years in which I’m mostly likely to buy a house, have children, etc. — and I’m already up to my ears in debt. I put so much into debt repayment each month that I have to take on new loans to pay for things that I could otherwise save up for to purchase out of pocket, like a replacement for my broken laptop or soon-to-die phone.

I also have very mixed feelings about the fact that Massachusetts has a mandatory 11 percent retirement contribution for teachers. I’ll be grateful in forty or fifty years but, for now, there’s a lot I could be doing with that money, like reducing the contribution to 5 or 6 percent and using the difference to pay off my debts.

I’ll admit, though, that I’m lucky. My partner is six years older and established in the still comparatively lucrative tech world, so he makes enough that together we can live pretty well. That being said, there are still distinct differences in how we feel and think about money. He says, “It’s just $100.” I see an overhanging cloud of debt and think, “That’s more than one week’s worth of groceries.” At the end of the day, without his help, I wouldn’t be able to do anything other than pay my bills month to month. With his help, we get to eat out or go to the movies now and then — probably more than we (or at least I) should.

Things have been complicated most recently by the discovery that a family member forged my signature on a $15,000 educational loan. I suppose they assumed they could take out the loan to cover hidden educational/home costs while I was in school and then take care of the repayment quietly. But this family member is really bad with money. I had no idea the loan existed until I started getting calls to collect because the loan was in default. Then, because it was the only way to clear my credit report of the fraudulent loan information, I had to decide whether or not to file a police report against my family member.

I finally made a decision a few weeks ago: instead of risking putting a family member in prison for up to 30 years — and against the advice of the six lawyers and just as many financial experts that I consulted in an attempt to find some way out of this — I am swallowing an additional $15,000 in loans. The trouble is that I don’t have that kind of money month-to-month, nor, on a teacher’s salary, do I see that being a possibility anytime soon. In the meantime, the defaulted loan has trashed my otherwise clean credit score to the extent that, a few months ago, I couldn’t even get a $1,000 loan to buy a laptop for work/grad school.

I also just started graduate school.

We were told we’d get jobs if we went to college, so we put ourselves in debt to go to college. Now we’re told we’ll get jobs — or ones that maybe pay enough or more — if we go to grad school, so we put ourselves in even more debt to go through grad school. Where and when, if ever, does it end? Is there another path or cycle we could be on? If so, why didn’t anyone tell me?

It’s literally my job to prepare high school students for college. But sometimes I wonder if the high school-only graduates or the college drop-outs were/are smarter — if they knew/know something I didn’t/don’t.


  1. AnonEng at 9:34 am, September 20, 2012

    offense, but you are either an idiot or too kind for your own good.
    Your family member obviously didn’t care about you when they forged your
    signature, and now you are on the hook for their loan?

    I’m sorry, but after reading this I don’t feel sorry for you, yea,
    you probably made a poor decision in choice of degree and will spend
    most of your life paying that off, but to then willingly take additional
    debt on in the way that you are, I just can’t feel sorry for you.

    I too have student loans, and credit card debt, from being unemployed many times as my sector of engineering was hit very hard, so I understand the overhanging debt issue, but I would never put further trust into anyone, even a family member, who fraudulently implicated me in a loan that they could not afford to pay off.

  2. GrnMachine at 10:22 am, September 20, 2012

    I am so sorry for the difficulties you are experiencing. The promise of the American Dream held out something different. In the meantime, I have to say, imo, you made the wrong decision by not holding that family member responsible for the havoc wreaked in your life. You just gave them $15,000 that YOU DON’T HAVE (sorry for yelling), and you also told them that it’s okay that they ruined your financial reputation (credit score). One thing you can do to protect yourself from further financial predation is to put an alert in your credit file so you’ll be alerted any time new loans or accounts are opened. Please also consider consulting with a nonprofit credit counseling agency to assist with strategies or resources that may be available to you. Good luck to you in the future.

  3. Claire at 11:21 am, September 20, 2012

    It’s amazing how similar my experience is to yours. I graduated from college in 2010 and find the debt I accumulated after 4 years of $50,000+ tuition quite difficult to manage. Like you, I often wonder, where does it end? How could I manage to buy a house or even go to graduate school in the next 10 years, when I’ll be repaying college loans for 20?

    Good luck, and thanks for writing this so people begin to realize how messed up the educational financing situation is.

  4. Morgan at 2:30 pm, September 20, 2012

    First, thank you all for
    responding. I’m very excited to see what kind of dialogue can begin here, and I welcome
    your insights and questions, whether or not you feel your own experience resonates
    with mine.

    To GrnMachine
    and others wondering:

    Please rest assured that –
    beyond filing the police report – I have taken advantage of every other
    possible means of protecting myself.

    To our mysterious Guest:

    After so much of my own deliberation,
    I fully understand why you might disagree with – and even seem to be
    vicariously disappointed or angered by – my decision about the loan. That being
    said, I do think that the direction and venom of your response is unwarranted –
    particularly since it incorrectly assumes several things that weren’t even mentioned
    in my original post (which, for brevity and clarity and privacy’s sake, I won’t go into here).

    In the end, though, there
    are many, many reasons why it took me many months and many consultations to come
    to the decision that I did.

    I don’t pretend to think
    that the decision I made was the only option, that I’m a better person for
    having made it, or even that I feel entirely good about having made it. I do,
    however, think that – given the many lives and many circumstances involved – I
    made the best decision I could without causing further injury to either myself
    or others.

    I am not asking for
    anything here.

    Rather, I was asked to be

    To tell my story, in all
    its complications.

    I am telling it as truly
    as I can.
    …Actually, I suppose the only thing I ask is that you listen.
    The loan situation is just a part – and by no means the significant part – of my story.

  5. Sophy at 3:41 pm, September 20, 2012

    Thank you for sharing your story. Family and money situations are never easy, and I actually know someone in a similar situation who did the same thing as you, so you’re not alone. Ruining someone’s credit is a horrible thing to do, especially in today’s economy, but we don’t know the whole story and it’s really none of our business why you made the decision. I’m sure it was a hard one to make.

  6. Choices at 4:00 pm, September 20, 2012

    I’m wondering what your expectations were when you chose your school and degree program? When you went to college, what was your plan for afterwards? Did you consider whether the cost of your education was worth it considering your expected or desired job prospects afterwards? I think many people in your situation went to college because “you need to go to college”, which is correct, for many jobs a college degree is a prerequisite, without ever thinking if the career they will end up in will allow them to pay back that debt. Now they are staring at a mountain of debt holding a degree that isn’t worth the money they paid.
    You CHOSE to go to a college that costs over 50k per year, when I’m sure there were alternatives that would have put you in significantly less debt at the end, so I’m honestly wondering why you made the choices you made?

  7. The Onceler at 4:23 pm, September 20, 2012

    First, let me say that I feel for you. I know first hand that it is very easy to get into deep debt before learning just how hard it is to get out again. With regard to your family member and the forged loan – I can hardly imagine.

    While not my vocation, as a father of two bright young girls, and as a college graduate, I automatically assume that my girls will go to college as well. At least, I *used* to assume this. In light of stories such as yours, I have begun to wonder.

    You did not note your actual debt, so for arguments sake, I looked up Macalester’s tuition and fees for 2012-2013. The total is $53,419.00, assuming you live and eat on campus. Lets assume that the average during your tenure was 50k, and that you had 50% assistance. So, you would be looking at 100k in college loan debt.

    In contrast, UMass Dartmouth would cost about 23k per year. Making the same assumptions, had you gone to a state school, you would still be carrying about 50k in college loan debt.

    If I extrapolate my own college loan payments, a 50k loan would result in about a $600/month payment, and a 100k loan would result in about a $1200/month payment.

    Lord knows how expensive tuition might be when my girls are grown, but given these numbers and the current economy, I wonder: does it make economic sense to go to college at all? Assuming that you had 100k in debt, the question is: does your degree afford you job opportunities that pay at least $14,400.00 more in yearly salary ($1200/month times 12 months)? It seems likely that they would. And had you attended a less expensive school, would your 4 year degree allow you an income that was about $7200 more in annual salary as opposed to a high school graduate who had 4 years of work experience, but no degree? Again, this seems likely.

    So, while the specter of 100k in debt, or $1200/month payments, seems daunting, the decision to go to college seems well justified when you compare the expected salary of a high school graduate when compared to a college graduate. In fact, according to http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=77, in 2010, a female with a college degree earned $15,000 more annually than her counterpart who had only a high school diploma.

    So, rather than consider the $1200/month payment, consider the $3,300/month paycheck vs the $2,100/month paycheck (gross pay). This turns out to be a wash BEFORE taxes, so it looks as if the college loans were a bad idea.

    However, if we assume the less expensive school, the picture gets better, assuming that your salary is not impacted significantly by your choice of school.

    And all of this considers only the financial picture. What about the OTHER benefits of having attended college? The experience alone might be worth the impact of the debt.

    I guess at this particular point in time, when jobs are scarce, graduating with debt would be scary, but looking for work with only a high school diploma might be equally scary.

    I wonder if the issue isn’t merely one of perception? When I graduated college, I had spent a grand total of about $40,000 to pay for college. My yearly salary as a new college graduate was about 20k. You indicate that your salary is between 35k and 45k. Had you gone to an in-state school (I assumed UMass), your numbers would look more like mine had looked. Further, at the time, many of my peers were going to much more expensive schools. I don’t know their financials, but at the time, they were paying about double my tuition.

    So, when I look at the numbers in a relative way, it seems that not much has changed with regard to college tuition levels, salary levels, and debt. The downturn in the economy is a factor. Health care is an issue, but it is universal, not just associated with new graduates. These things aside, your situation seems not unlike mine and many of my peers, back when we first graduated. While we all felt stressed at the time, things worked out in the end. Hopefully they will for you as well.

  8. Rhiannon at 4:43 pm, September 20, 2012

    You sound a lot like me. I am thankful to have a job right now after graduating recently, and I thankfully never had to move back in with my mother. But things are not what I wanted them to be. If I want to advance my career in my field and eventually make more money, grad school is a requirement. My student loan payments eat up over half of my take home pay, and my rent (which is relatively small due to the amount of roommates we pack into a tiny apartment) takes another 30%. And I’m actually saving 10% because I know it’s the right thing to do. But trying to eat and live on 10% of your take home pay is difficult.

    I, too, have a partner making significantly more than me, and he tends to take care of the “fun stuff”. I can’t tell you how immensely guilty that makes me feel, though. There have been days where he had to give me money so I could go out to lunch with my co-workers because he knew bonding with them was important to my career development. It kills me sometimes that I can be so financially desperate despite all my planning and hard work…and then I remember there are people who have it way worse than me.

  9. Morgan at 6:33 pm, September 20, 2012

    I’ll be honest, when I was applying to schools, I didn’t really have any set plans for life after college. At the time, I had somewhat recently gotten off the path towards a professional dance career and was feeling a bit lost. So, you’re right: I went to college mostly because it was the next thing that I thought I was supposed to do, and because everyone told me that, if I went, everything else would follow. My family (as you may have guessed) wasn’t the best to be educating me about the financial end of things, and my high school certainly made no attempts to cram in personal economics in the middle of the regular curriculum so, basically, I left home financially ignorant. That said, I’m actually lucky: while my debt is substantial, it’s actually less than the national average of around 25K (Mac averaged closer to 40K/year when I attended, and the school is actually cheaper for many students because – between grants and loans – it maintains a 100% need met policy). Hope this addresses your questions!

  10. Morgan at 6:40 pm, September 20, 2012

    You may be interested in the comment made by Choices and my reply further down the page. Re: your own question: “Does it make economic sense to go to college at all?” I’m honestly not sure – it’s a question that I attempt to address in my next post. Strictly financially, I think not – or at least not necessarily – anymore. As you noted, though, for me, I think “the experience alone [was] worth the impact of the debt”. I also wanted to say that I appreciate your ending comments, and your note that the issue may merely be one of perception. It seems like there’s a lot of room for exploration there.

  11. The Onceler at 7:56 pm, September 20, 2012

    I can’t say I was “much the same” as you in regard to how and why I wound up in college, except in that I went for somewhat ill defined reasons, and with no specific goal, other than to graduate. i suspect that a majority of college students go with only a vague plan in mind. Further, over the years since graduating, I have come to believe that a minority of college graduates actually wind up following the path that they set out on. My undergraduate degree was in Civil Engineering. I would estimate that i spent about 5% of my working life employed in that capacity.

    It is actually quite relieving to hear that your debt burden is so low (as compared to what it *could* have been, given the tuition at ‘Mac’). I can imagine how your debt seems huge from your perspective, but from where I am standing, it seems quite acceptable. I read your comment, and I am glad to see that you also find value in the ‘intangibles’ of your college experience. I learned FAR more in college than calculus,physics, and German.

    I still must disagree with your conclusion that college was a poor choice, financially. If your debt is less than 25k, you will likely make up for that in just a few years, based on your increased earning potential. I imagine that you would be earning significantly less if you were relying solely on your high school diploma. In fact, I often lament that I did not spend MORE when I was an undergrad. My family was largely ignorant of how college finances worked. As a result, we approached the tuition problem with the notion that we would have to pay in full, in advance. I have many friends who went to better (and more expensive) schools, but who wound up with nearly the same debt load as I had. Or maybe the grass is just greener over there?

    I suspect that you will look back at this time, say 5 or 10 years from now, and you will hardly remember the stress and worry. By then, your finances will have settled down, and I suspect you will find yourself in a happy place. Best wishes.