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Why I Have So Much Student Loan Debt (And Why YOU Should Avoid It Like The Plague!!!)

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A few weeks ago I posted the latest in my student loan drama.

   

I will speak only for myself, as every person is in a different situation.

First, if you’re a new(ish) reader, I recommend checking out my debt story to explain how I acquired so much debt in the first place (I haven’t always had debt! It all came while I was in grad school). And if you are curious, I’ve broken down all my Navient student loans in this post (keep in mind, that does not include loans from ACS). My latest debt update (with all debts) can be found here.

Why did you take out student loans in the first place?

I was so lucky to have parents who were financially able to help me through my undergraduate degree. For my first year (living on campus), they paid for everything – tuition, books, room, board, meal plan, etc. I worked part-time for fun money. Over time I took on more responsibility for paying my own bills. By my senior year of college they were still helping pay all my tuition and books, but I had been working a lot more to pay for my living expenses (rent, utilities, car, food, etc. etc. etc.) This worked well for me because I was able to gradually take on more responsibilities associated with “ adult life” instead of having it happen overnight when I turned 18. Not everyone is so fortunate and I am forever grateful for the gentle scaffolding I received in that regard. But one thing I always knew is that I would hit the end point of financial assistance once I graduated. My parents knew I wanted to pursue an advanced degree (I’ve always wanted to be a college professor, which requires a PhD), but we had all discussed it and I knew I’d be on my own in terms of paying for the degree. Perhaps interestingly, my stepdad (who married my Mom when I was 16, but has been in my life since 14) has a Ph.D. But things were so, so different when he’d received his advanced degree. So we never had a talk about how to avoid student loan debt, or the best way to minimize student loan debt. I don’t want to bash my parents – they did the best they could with the information they had (they really didn’t know how much it could cost to earn a Ph.D. today). But I do wish someone had pulled me aside and had a financial conversation with me about student loan debt. Instead, I simply viewed student loans as the only logical way to pay for my advanced degrees. There was never a question of doing anything differently.

But why so much student loan debt? How did it get so out of control?

Most of my student loan debt was incurred in my first two years of graduate school while I was living in Florida. I talk more about it here. Basically, tuition was insanely expensive for an out-of-state graduate student and I didn’t receive tuition reimbursement from the university. I racked up nearly $50,000 in student loans those first two years, alone. It all happened so quickly I never really wrapped my brain around it. At the time I had a good friend pursuing a medical degree (which we know is $$$$), and we talked about student loans one time. She talked about how she mentally compartmentalizes the money so she doesn’t stress about it. She actually made some metaphor of the money being “fake” – like Monopoly money or something. It made her feel better psychologically and it was easier to cope with racking up the kinds of loans she was taking out. I basically followed suit with the same strategy. The common (mis)conception I’d always been told was that “education is always valuable” and “student loans are ‘good’ debt.” Note, these are two things I vehemently disagree with now, but I bought into the myths at the time (along with all my grad school buddies).

So education isn’t always good? What do you think now?

I’m in higher education, so obviously I’m pro-college (I teach college courses so I’d be out a job if no one went to school!) BUT I know so many people who went to college just because that’s what they’d always been told to do. My belief now is that education just for the sake of education is a LUXURY. There’s nothing wrong with it. I love to learn! But unless you can afford to pay cash, it should be in the same category as a luxury vehicle. You don’t need it. Just going to school blindly with no plan for the future (in terms of career, projected earnings, etc.) is not wise in my opinion. Instead, high schools should offer prep courses or parents should sit their kids down and think about costs of college versus projected salary. They need to be in-sync. You wouldn’t take out $100,000 of student loan debt for a degree in German Polka History (Dave Ramsey’s example). You need to be sure that you’ll be employable after graduation! Are there jobs in your degree area? What is the starting salary? What is the average salary? How much is your degree going to cost? These are questions that young people should be examining before selecting a major and enrolling in classes. If you’re unsure, it’s not the worst thing in the world to wait a year before going to college! If parents are okay with helping a child financially and the kid wants to take general courses while they figure out what subject to major in, then that’s fine. I’m not going to judge anyone else. But for me and my children (when they reach college-age), we’re going to have some serious financial and career-oriented discussions prior to ever registering for that first college hour.

When you were taking out student loans, what did you think would be the timeline for repayment?

Honestly, this is a subject my grad school friends and I talked about frequently. And you know what the common thought is? “I’ll have these loans forever.” When you graduate you’re put on a 30-year plan, the same as a mortgage, and you just assume they’ll be around forever. Maybe not everyone thinks this way but this was the overwhelming majority of opinions that I have experienced (that goes for grad students at both universities I attended, so it wasn’t limited to a specific place). I really didn’t think specifics in terms of payments and interest while I was in school. I never even knew the full amount I owed until after I graduated as I was doing my exit loan counseling. I knew I owed a lot, but I’d never had it all added up before in a single place until then. I had no idea that my monthly payments (before applying for IBR) would be over a thousand dollars a month, and that over a third of the payment would be going straight to interest. It’s incredibly overwhelming and scary to find yourself newly graduated, no job yet, and to discover you are responsible for a mortgage-sized debt.

Million dollar question…. Would you do it again?

I would definitely still earn my advanced degree (Ph.D.) because its required for the type of jobs that I want (and for the job I recently accepted!). Even if I hadn’t landed my new job, I wouldn’t say the degree, itself, was a waste. But if I had fully understood the implications of my sized student loan debt, I would have done everything in my power to avoid them or minimize them to whatever extent possible. Here are some real life things I would have done differently (that may or may not apply to other peoples’ situations):

  1. Work while in school. I did this in undergrad, but graduate school felt so all-encompassing that I didn’t think it was possible. You know what? It was. Eventually I came around while pursuing my Ph.D. and I taught several classes at the local community college. But the whole time I was in Florida (where, again, most of my debt is from), I didn’t do a single thing other than school. What a wasted opportunity to try to earn some money and minimize the loans I was taking out.
  2. Work on campus. Especially in Florida where I did not receive any tuition reimbursement, working on campus would have been invaluable. They paid pretty poorly (I think minimum wage at the time – about $8/hour) BUT they gave tuition reimbursement! At $1,000 per credit hour, that tuition reimbursement would have been worth it even if I had been working for free! I should have gotten a job on campus.
  3. Work (even for free) through any company that will pay for your education. This tends to be less common if you want to go into academia (like me), but I had several friends who worked for places (or interned, where they earned no paycheck at all), in exchange for a partial or full college tuition reimbursement. Think about your career trajectory and see if this can somehow work for you. Even many retail stores offer tuition reimbursement of some kind. You just have to do a little digging and asking around to find out if it would work for you!
  4. If your desired school is out-of-state, move there first! This is a big one that not many people know about. If you move somewhere (out-of-state) for school, you will be considered an out-of-state student for tuition purposes the entire time you stay there (not just first semester or first year). I learned this the hard way when I went to a school in Florida. We lived there full-time, hubs worked there and paid taxes there, we were considered residents in terms of our licenses and for jury duty (I even served on a jury while living there!) But we were NOT considered residents for tuition purposes. The way around this is that if you know you want to attend an out-of-state college, you can actually move there a semester (or year) before you plan to attend! A big secret tip for grad students, specifically… I know more than one person who did not get into their dream university. So they moved to the school’s city and started attending lab meetings and discussion groups on their own time. They even took a few classes as non-degree seeking students. And as long as they made a good impression and forged relationships with faculty members they were always, without exception, admitted the following year. Why? It shows extreme dedication to move cross-country and start attending a school without officially being accepted there! So for any future grad students who didn’t get into the dream program – there’s still a chance! Build those connections prior to matriculation and you’ll (1) likely get in the following year, and (2) be considered in-state for tuition purposes since you moved to the state before starting school!
  5. Look at tuition when determining a school to attend. I can honestly say I never once looked at tuition rates when deciding where to apply to and where to eventually attend. That is so, so, so silly on my part! This is REAL money that is going to take REAL years to repay, not to mention interest, etc. So look for places that are inexpensive and affordable! At the undergrad level, start with a community college (bonus – you can likely work full-time and take classes at night and on weekends). Then transfer to an inexpensively priced in-state university to finish up your bachelor’s degree. This will help minimize the amount of loans that are taken out to cover the tuition.
  6. Get involved in a cause! And apply for related scholarships. Really you should apply for every scholarship or grant known to man-kind. But I’ve found that it helps increase your odds if you get involved in some specific group (often a philanthropy of some kind) and apply for scholarships specifically targeted toward the group. As an example, when I was a grad student I joined an organization specifically for women in academia. I attended bi-annual meetings, mentored an undergraduate girl, served on annual committee panels and even organized a symposium one year for middle-school and high-school aged girls. As a grad student, I found various women’s organizations that offered grants and I was able to win several due to my extensive involvement in the women’s organization at my university. They weren’t huge grants, but they covered my costs to attend various conferences, paid for travel, lodging, conference costs, etc. etc. etc.

Those are my tips. Feel free to leave any additional tips in the comments section.

And if you are a parent or mentor to a young person about to graduate high school, don’t be scared to pull him/her aside and have a frank discussion of the long-term implications of student loan debt (and all the drama that accompanies them). Knowledge is power! : )


19 Comments

  • Reply Chantal |

    This is a superb essay on the problems to be encountered and mistakes which can be made. I have pointed my daughter and her family to it. Her 18 year old son is postponing college as he has a full time job with a technical firm he has worked with for two summers while in high school. My husband and I really approve of this even though we are both retired academics.

    But then I got my doctorate in the UK, on complete scholarships and he had VA funding over here. Those were the good old days in education.

    I admire you so much and wish you all the good luck you obviously deserve.

    • Reply Ashley |

      Thank you Chantal! That’s very kind! I’m glad you found this post to be helpful!

  • Reply Kristina |

    With a lot of help from my parents and for choosing a cheap school that I loved, I graduated with about $15k in undergrad loans, and had them knocked out 3 years after graduation (it took me awhile to get serious about my finances).

    My advice on them…don’t go $100k into debt on education when the job you want post grad only pays approx $50k a year, no matter where you went to school.

    And for the ones that don’t know what they want to do with their lives just yet…don’t be wasting your money on credit hours that aren’t going to help you in the long run. If you’re dead set on college, but have no plan, go to Community College and get the gen eds under your belt and use that time to figure out what you want to do.

  • Reply Jennifer |

    Thank you for such an honest post. Stories like yours I think are far more common than not. My daughter after getting a degree in anthropology was set on going to get her masters out of state in Anthropology. Yikes…we as her parents were so not supportive in this. Thank god she took two years off after graduating. She explored her options and listened to the advice of a professor. His advice was that a Grad program should pay you. She is currently enrolled in a program were working at the university is a requirement and tuition is paid. The program is also a much more marketable degree. I think with exploring options, making adjustments you can live with to your dream and working while in school it is possible to get that degree without incurring massive debt.
    What I admire most about you is that you never blame the university for your high debt. You acknowledge you had choices and mistakes were made but you “own” up to your debt. I cringe when I read articles of people whining about student loans like they were forced into the situation. Life is about choices and the sacrifices we are willing to incur to achieve them. I applaud your determination and am so excited to hear about your new job!

    • Reply Jen from Boston |

      “Grad program should pay you”

      YES YES YES!!!!! Although, it might be harder at the Master’s level, but for a PhD look for a program that covers the tuition, In return, you’ll be expected to teach and/or be a research assistant. My boyfriend and a best friend are each ABD – all but dissertation – PhD dropouts. My boyfriend was lucky in that he got into a program that paid him a small stipend plus some extra for teaching. My friend wasn’t so lucky, and now she has student loans up the wazoo. She may also have undergrad loans as well.

      And, before you criticize them for dropping out I want to add that 1) they had HUGE difficulty in coming up with a viable research topic and the pressure to do so was causing a huge amount of stress; 2) their income with a PhD likely wouldn’t be that different than it is now, and 3) yes, they still came out with marketable skills. My friend works as a project manager for research while my boyfriend teaches at the college level.

      And knowing their experiences in PhD programs and my own habits and personality I am SOOOOOO glad I never pursued academia. I would have flamed out disastrously.

      • Reply Ashley |

        Jen – I can’t even count the number of people I know who left academia at (or so, so, so near) the ABD status. I think its much more common than people think. Another great reason why student loan debt should be avoided (or at least minimized) at all costs!

        • Reply Jen from Boston |

          And then there’s the very, very small percentage of people who have TWO PhD!!!

          The mind boggles.

    • Reply Rachel |

      I second what Jennifer said. Your perspective is so rare these days – you take ownership of the situation and responsibility for your decisions. You are working hard to create a brighter future for you and your family, while blaming nobody for your past choices. I, too, admire your attitude and your tenacity!

  • Reply Ashley |

    I loved this post- thank you!!! My parents paid for my education- thank goodness. We are still paying off my husbands student loans 10 years later. We are down to the last $5000! We both wish he had been more educated about what all of this debt would mean in a real budget and how much of a burden it really is!

    • Reply Ashley |

      YAY for being down to the last $5,000!!!! Good luck knocking it out quickly!

  • Reply Maureen |

    I agree with this post and hindsight of course is 20/20. I got through undergrad with no debt except a $2000 loan I took out for a study abroad program. I paid it off on 6 months making $25K a year as a teacher. Then, I decided I wanted to go to grad school and got my MA in education. I paid cash for half my degree and took out loans for the other half (about $15,000). My spouse and I had good income and could have easily repaid it in a year or two. That seemed like a decent plan, plus having my MA allowed me to earn more as a teacher. Then, the economy started to tank and teachers with tenure were being laid off. I considered other career options.
    Then, the next phase of my life began a series of events that I would like to “redo.” I decided to leave K-12 education and go to law school. This decision coincided with the purchase of a new home at the height of the booming market (before the crash). Although, I worked through law school and my husband makes a 6-figure income I still took out loans. Fast-forward 4 years and with interest my grad and law loans totaled more than $180,000 in debt (law school is not cheap). I call it my second home debt! Here is the kicker (and makes me rethink that the promise of grass is greener…)…the real estate market tanked and I graduated in 2008 in the worst legal job market in the last 100 years. There were no jobs. Faced with a $1,000+ student loan payment (on the 25-year repayment plan) and the tanking housing market (we were underwater even though we put 20% down) we had few options but to try and ride it out. I started my own firm and my husband continued in his job. We started to dig ourselves out.
    Fast-forward to 2014 we were forced with a relocation to a much more expensive city that involved losing several hundred thousand dollars on our real estate (from what we had paid). Luckily, we had paid it down enough so that we had to only bring a little cash out of pocket but any equity we had was long gone. My long-term job prospects have again halted due to a crappy legal market in the new city (which is a very large metro area). However, I have been able to pick up consulting/contracting work for an okay (not great) salary and my husband still makes a very good salary (we are very lucky in that regard). By the end of summer my student loan balance should be down to $120,000 and my minimum requirement payments less than $850. I purposely did not consolidate so I can pay off the higher interest loans quicker. I am on pace to pay off the reamining $120K in the next 3 years or sooner while sacrificing some but not compromising a fairly comfortable middle class life (I take my lunch, commute via train (vs. car/gas), don’t eat out, coupon, etc. but I do take vacations, get my hair done, etc.).
    What I love about your post is you put yourself all out there. Here is the hindsight kicker on my part-if we had never bought the “new” house when I started law school I could have paid cash for probably 75% of my education. If I could only go back 10 years….

    • Reply Ashley |

      Hindsight truly is 20/20! I thank you for sharing your story, too! It not only helps me but, undoubtedly, helps other readers as well. It’s a good cautionary tale; I’m only sorry its not just a fictional story but a story of REAL obstacles in your REAL LIFE that you’ve had (and are continuing) to overcome. Best of luck paying down your loans, and thank again for the comment!

      • Reply Maureen |

        Thank you for your kind words. I would add that the grass is not always greener because I assumed by going to law school I would make a decent living wage (not necessarily Big Firm wages) that would cover my loan payments easily and with my husband’s income I would be able to pay them back in full in a few years, essentially allocating all my income to my loans and retirement (I am glad that you are able to think about this too) for the first few years. In the last 7 years (since I have graduated from law school) I have made less each year than I made in my last year in K-12 education (I was an administrator the last 5 years before going to law school). I have colleagues who have left the legal profession and gone back to their former careers (I was an evening student so there were a lot of second career professionals in my law school class) because they can’t make enough to rent a small apartment and pay their minimum loan balance. I have no regrets, on a good day, about going to law school, but as my first response indicated, I would CERTAINLY do things differently.

  • Reply k |

    I loved reading this! It’s something I’d like to print off and hand to every high school senior.
    I was lucky that I got scholarships that paid for part of my school, my parents paid for my housing and living (and a small chunk of senior year when financial aid got wonky), and then I took out a handful of loans for school, “only” totalling $18,000. It’s been 3.5 years since I started paying them back and the balance is down to $9,000. I’m hoping to have it all gone in 3 more years.
    I’m very much a numbers person, so I’ve always understood and grasped what my loans are and how much their payments are and what they actually mean. I know that a loan is a loan, no matter the adjective in front of it. It is money you borrowed and when they say you have to start paying it back, you find a way to fork over that money. When I was under employed, I was able to put my biggest loan in forebearance but I still made an occasional payment to keep the interest from stacking up. I had friends that had their loans in deferrment/forebearance for 4+ years before they made a payment, just think of all that building interest!
    Student loans are a big ole mess and I do wish they could get an overall or that students could get a better picture of them before signing away 10+ years of their paychecks.

    • Reply Ashley |

      YES! Especially since those first 10 years in the career world are so invaluable for trying to build retirement, start young families, etc. Money is tight as it is, it’s hard to add student loan burdens to the mix.

  • Reply A |

    I got similar advice from my college professors that Jennifer’s daughter got: the program should pay you. I was given the following advice when picking grad programs:
    1) Pick a large academic university with lots of federal grants (I happen to be in the medical world so this is not too hard to come by) and
    2) get funding.
    I ended up with a fellowship for my graduate program so I wasnt required to work during my MS degree, which was amazing. Some of my classmates had research assistant or teaching assistant jobs that paid their tuition and provided a stipend like my fellowship.
    Point is–look for ways to get funding or wait. You dont have to be a teaching assistant in the department in which you’re a student–another department works too.
    It also helps if you’re at a large universty with the need for many research and teaching assistants.

    All that said, unfortunately I lived a similar lifestyle to you in grad school and while I left my MS program with no student loans, I have a decent amount of credit card debt from it. Working on that now.

  • Reply Gerry Speck |

    Hi Ashley, Thank you so much for sharing this useful information with us. I have one question for you. I am planning to apply for educational loans for my MBA in business management in the UAE. What are the general documents that required to be submitted ???

So, what do you think ?