Just the mere thought of them strikes a chord of regret in the hearts of millions of folks who were, once upon a time, starry-eyed college students. Some finished, some didn’t. But many of us must pay our debts to the great white beast known as student loans. I personally am enslaved to Sallie Mae, and I hate that heifer. If I catch her out on the streets, I’m blacking both of her eyes and chipping two of her front teeth. We’ve got a big, big score to settle.
Since I’m the first person in my family to have the privilege of going to college, there was no background experience in the often mystifying world of post-secondary financial aid. My mama and grandparents knew they wanted me to have the opportunity, and they saved as much as they could scrape together. Fortunately, a one-two combo of good grades and fairly decent SAT scores earned me a full ride to my dearly beloved Lincoln University. During my first two years of school, I didn’t have to come out of pocket for too much of anything, save a massive anthology of Shakespeare’s works that was too expensive to be covered by my book voucher back then and still too valuable to donate to Goodwill now.
Then mysteriously, the scholarship that enticed me to the school was no longer being offered, and I was forced to throw together my own financial aid package, a conglomerate of grants, smaller scholarships and those dreaded, damned “what-did-I-ever-learn-that-was-worth-this-much-money?” student loans. I don’t even want to tell you how much I owe. But let’s just put it like this: I get on the website, I pay my bill, I avert my eyes from that grand total and allow myself a few indulgent moments to frolic in a fantasyland where I’m unshackled from the icky cellars of education-related bondage.
I hate all student loans from all originators and lending institutions for all people everywhere trying to make a decent living without the ghost of academic past knocking at their door. I hate that some financial aid administrators present it as the easiest way to pay for school without laying out alternatives and consequences, particularly for folks who are inexperienced at navigating the system. I hate the concept that you go to college because society and your family and the working world are forever emphasizing its importance but you have to spend the next five, 15, heck, maybe even 30 or 40 years of your life paying for it. It doesn’t matter if you never do anything with the major you specialized in or the degree you worked so hard to earn. They ain’t splittin’ hairs if you make $17,000 a year as a parking attendant or $160,000 a year as a litigator. They’re going to come for you. And, even if you die, your family is still on the hook for the education you took with you to the grave.
Case in point: Ella Edwards circulated a Change.org petition, which I happily signed, in a desperate plea to have a student loan she’d co-signed for her son forgiven by American Education Services and National Collegiate Trust. He sadly passed away in 2009 but neither company would forgive the $10,800 balance. She sometimes struggled to make the payments on time and wilted under the barrage of collection calls she received when she didn’t. She was overwhelmed, but she also wanted other parents and their children to be aware that student loan debt doesn’t die when you do. It lives on and on like a bad legacy. Thankfully, that’s not her problem anymore. God bless Tom Joyner’s heart — he paid it for her. His generosity starkly contrasts the money-making machine and big business of college education.
Two-thirds of college graduates are leaving school with debt, most of it at least $20,000. Graduate and professional students have it even worse—those loans average anywhere between $27,000 to $114,000, depending of course on the field, school and specialty. And in this market, none of those MAs, BSes, PhDs or MSWes are necessarily adding up to j-o-b-s. And even if, in the dire straits of drowning in good debt gone bad, you file bankruptcy, everything—even your gambling obligations—can be discharged. Except your student loans. Those you still have to pay. There’s $85 billion burdening everybody from anesthesiologists to measly little freelance writers. I don’t regret going to school. I blossomed in my love of writing. I made awesome friends. I experienced independence. I had a ball. But it’s kinda funny—I paid all that money to learn but one of the greatest lessons I got out of school was to read the freakin’ fine print on every single thing I sign.