Twelve 20-somethings chronicle their lives for WBUR. Learn more.
Ah, the summer of 2007. I had just graduated college with a measly $16,000 in student loans; life was carefree. Between scholarships and the boom years for my dad’s career, college was mostly paid for. With my degree, I could have gotten a job doing something that paid moderately well and be on my way to debt-free life (Keep in mind, this is in my ideal world, when I sit at home staring at my actual student-loan debt and imagining “what if?”).
Then, in the fall, I entered law school. Keep in mind, I spent most of the previous year doing things to get into law school, like take the LSAT and apply for school and financial aid, so this isn’t a surprise, but work with me here.
Northeastern University School of Law gave me an $8,000 annual merit scholarship. Beyond that, every cent of the roughly $40,000-a-year tuition was funded by federal student loans. I was no longer financially dependent on my parents, but I was now dependent and buying my groceries and movie tickets with government money.
That’s not to say I didn’t work — I did. I had a work study that amounted to about $1,000 a semester and I had paid internships during my co-op quarters. But that didn’t amount to much. And, as the first year of law school wound down, the recession hit. When the recession hit, my father’s job, which once allowed me to study abroad for a semester with little budgetary constraints, now put my parents in the position where they had to borrow money from my student loans to pay for my younger brother’s college tuition. Eventually, they did pay me back, but my brother ended up having to take private loans to pay for his last two years.
I lived off those loans. I used some of them to put a down payment on my car (bought used). I enjoyed my time in law school. I graduated. I paid for a bar review course with my loans; paid the fee to take the bar exam with the loans. And now I have to pay them back.
That’s what the Department of Education’s website says I owe. And it grows. My monthly interest is more than $900, but I only pay $315.56 a month because I don’t make enough money to pay any more.
I’m not asking for sympathy. I knew what I was doing when I signed those promissory notes and enrolled in law school. I absolutely thought that the other side of law school would bring a bigger payday than I’ve encountered, but sometimes life does that. I’m on income-based repayment, so if all remains the same, in 25 years, my loans will be forgiven — just in time for me to take out loans for my own kids to go to school, if I have them.
But I hope the system doesn’t stay the same. It’s corrupt and broken. When the federal government guarantees limitless student loans, colleges and universities are free to raise tuition astronomically and nobody blinks.
There’s no way the $150,000+ that I gave to Northeastern University School of Law went only to costs. I think colleges need to be held to a similar rule as health insurance companies under the ACA – 80 percent (or some other number) of tuition should be required to go to services that directly benefit the students.
You can use my tuition to pay the salary of my professor or bring an interesting speaker to campus but not to renovate the chancellor’s house. Don’t hit that 80 percent? Give me a refund. There are many other reforms needed, but I think a good first step is to find out where that tuition money is going.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” – Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (1916-1939).
Transparency is key. Tell me where my money is going. What’s the point of a billion-dollar endowment if it just sits in a bank account? I think frustration would be less if we could at least see where the money is going. Beyond that, however, there needs to be more accountability. New buildings are fantastic, but when you multiply $40,000 by eleven thousand undergrads, not all of that money is going toward construction and salaries.
Of course, student loans aren’t my only debt, but my credit-card debt is pretty negligible compared to the giant elephant in the room. I bought a used car in 2010 after graduating law school (I was leaving Boston and needed transportation); I have credit cards (I bought textbooks, a mattress, and a couch and, while I’ve cut it in half from its highest point, that’s still hovering at around $1,000).
Honestly, I’m so exhausted by thinking about my financial situation, I can’t even really get worked up about it anymore. Almost my entire generation is in the same situation, so no one is going to get upset for me. It’s just a fact of life for my peers and me. I have student loans. I will be paying them for at least the next twenty-five years, unless I win the lottery – which I don’t play – or meet a rich benefactor.
I think the biggest anxiety that I have about my financial situation is the unknown.
What if I suddenly need a large sum of money? The day to day is basically covered, though finances are tight. I can afford to be tight and go visit friends at Syracuse’s homecoming this year, but what if my car needs work? It’s at almost 60,000 miles, that could happen! I can’t afford extensive work. I have a very bare-bones health insurance plan; what if I get hurt or sick?
That’s what keeps me up at night.
My parents could probably help, maybe my brothers if I was really in a pinch. But I’m a grown up. I don’t want to need help to pay my own bills. For now, I have to be careful, save what I can (while still having a life – I won’t stay in every weekend like a hermit because something might happen), do my best to be happy with what I have, and work hard to make sure that I’m better off five years from now — whatever that means.