My College Changed My Life (I’m Paying Dearly for It)

My life plan in the halcyon days of 2004 was to go to an amazing private liberal arts college (I was heavily influenced by Colleges That Change Lives); have my life changed (of course); go to grad school to be an archivist; get an amazing position out of grad school that paid decently; and live forever happily in a nice city. I figured I’d quickly pay off my fairly low-interest loans.

That is not my life. Instead I have $70,000 in student loan debt—half of that private loans—that I’m not paying off quickly at all. I did go to the private liberal arts school, but only for one year, which makes up half my debt. I have my BA and work as a receptionist at a not-for-profit. I live in the midwest and take public transportation. I can’t afford a car, grad school, moving, or much of anything outside of my rent, student loan payments, and necessities—food, medication, cheap beer.

My parents couldn’t afford to help with my tuition, but my financial aid was still based on their income. (Financial aid guidelines have nothing to do with who actually pays for one’s education, and everything to do with being under 24 years old and being considered a dependent.) I dropped out of the very expensive liberal arts school after one year, and eventually completed my degree through a community college and public university, paid for with loans.

I think about my debt almost daily. It’s not always out of regret or self-flagellation. I’m grateful for the education I received, I loved what I studied, and I’m incredibly lucky to have a job that pays my bills. But, the majority of one paycheck every month goes to loan payments, so it’s a major factor in how I plan for both the short- and long-term. I don’t have savings. My safety net is a credit card I try to avoid using as much as possible. I’d like to start investing in a 401(k), but have decided that it can wait a few more years. I need a car. I’d like to move.


I think about moving back in with my parents, embracing austerity, paying off my debt when I’m well into my 30s. But I’d rather keep chugging along with my infinite monthly minimum payments and still have a social life and a roommate who didn’t give birth to me.

I often wish I’d made different choices to minimize my student loan debt. My year at a College That Changes Lives did change my life—though how much more than a year at any other college, I’ll never know. I made some amazing friends, explored interests I didn’t know I had—would you say $40,000 is worth that? That life-defining price tag. I often think of smarter ways I could have handled my education. I wouldn’t advise anyone to follow my life choices.


Stephanie H. probably should have become an accountant and still dreams of frolicking with lemurs professionally.


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