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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18 Comments / Post A Comment

Weasley (#1,419)

I went to an amazing private liberal arts school starting in 2008 and my dad got laid off after my first semester. I kept going to said school for two terms, took a term off to work, then went to a public university for a year, took another year off to work, and now I’m back at my amazing liberal arts school for my last year where I’m paying for it all myself. And it’s totally worth it for me. I experienced things I wouldn’t have if I stayed at my state university. My school encourages field experience and “learning by doing” so both the jobs I found when I took terms off were related to my field so I got tons of experience which helped me find a job after graduation (I have not graduated yet).

I have no private loans, they’re all federal. Taking the semesters off and working during school have made it possible. Also, I did get my first year of school paid for by my parents after I maxed out the federal aid.

Slutface (#53)

“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.”

You’re young. Suck it up and move back in with your parents if they’re offering. You’ll still have a social life and you’ll actually be able to save money, travel and set yourself up for a more financially stable future.

Trilby (#191)

@Slutface I agree. Move back in with the ‘rents (does anyone say that anymore?). It will help your financial picture a lot. You can get that car you’ve been wanting. Seriiously, do it. There’s no shame in it. Let them help you in that way if they’re willing.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@Trilby I’m going to have to chime in to be the voice of dissent here – for some of us, moving back with our parents would have been a gigantic psychological step backward. I come from a severely dysfunctional family, and living on my own just as soon as I could was the only way I could develop into a real person. To do that, I had to not pay off my debt, and take on more debt. It was totally worth it to me. I lived in hellholes to be able to do that, and it was worth it. It really depends on each individual’s circumstances whether moving with one’s parents is a good idea, it’s not so simple as “suck it up to save money” for everyone.

Slutface (#53)

@WaityKatie I totally get that and I have a similar experience to yours. I’ve struggled and wish I had a supportive family that would’ve been there for me so I wouldn’t have had to struggle so much. I didn’t get the sense about the person in this article. It came off to me that they just don’t want to give up their fun lifestyle and freedom.

I should also mention that things can be a lot different when you live with your parents as an adult. I have a friend who is 32 and just moved back in with her parents. Her parents are even more put out than she is. They’ve gotten used to having their house to themselves, being able to watch CSI and Two And A Half Men at top volume because they’re deaf, not having to worry about where their kids are, etc… Neither party is excited about the situation but they do it because they know she needs help.

Trilby (#191)

@WaityKatie I have a 28-YO daughter who got out of a very messed-up marraige and lost everything- all possessions, gone! She hated giving up her “freedom” but had no choice but to move in with me till she could get a job and get situated again. It took her 4 months. She gives me a lot of credit for my help, emotional help and support as well as the food and shelter and pocket money. It was not ideal — she occupied a corner of my living room — but her stay with me served its purpose.

I understand fully that having a dysfunctional family is not so good, on many levels, and of course no one wants to go back into that situation. I didn’t get that impression from the OP about her family, tho’.

highjump (#39)

Growing up with parents who completed AAs while working I always wanted to have a fantasy “real” college experience. I spent four years at my fancy liberal arts school incurring ~$75k of debt and sobbed at graduation because I didn’t want to leave and begin paying for it. The day to day grind of that debt really does get me down. I pay more in student loans than in rent, some career options are/were closed to me because of the debt burden, and some of my many student loan servicers are real assholes.

But when I stop and think about it I always come to the conclusion that it was totally worth it. An internship experience made possible by a unique long-standing program at my institution led directly to the amazing job I have now. The mentors/allies I have in my former professors are invaluable. My memories of tiny classes engaged in intense idealistic discussions, brick buildings, studying abroad, and every other private liberal arts cliche you can think of are pretty precious to me. I am definitely paying dearly for it but I can’t imagine where I would be if I hadn’t made that choice. Its like a riff on Stockholm Syndrome I’m willing to buy into.

sunflowernut (#1,638)

Girl I feel you. I do not have as much debt, but my college experience was totally worthless and it drives me crazy every month to have to pay so much money for it – money I would be happy to even just be saving. I should not have gone to college straight out of high school. Why is that even a thing?

TheDilettantista (#1,255)

I’m going to guess that the frolicking with lemurs line is indicative of your one expensive year being spent at Duke, which has a lemur research center. Just guessing.

EM (#1,012)

I share your dream of professionally frolicking with lemurs. I mean how can you resist?

Stina (#686)

@Michelle “I mean how can you resist?”
Simple. Thinks of Otters and how much more awesome they are.

#starting a pointless, but adorable mammal fight

EM (#1,012)

@Stina I love otters too! They are adorable, and use tools, and my biologist friend told me that when they are young they choose a rock that they’ll carry around with them forever- they just keep it tucked under one arm. Like a pet rock! I haven’t verified that but it sounds adorable.

But at the end of the day, an otter is a giant sea weasel. Weasels are musky and like to bite. There is no cuteness contest between a giant wet weasel and this palm-sized mouse lemur!

#team lemur #there are no losers in a cute animal fight.

awk (#840)

Hi Billfold (I called you Hairpin first because I forgot which site I was on! oops),

How many more of these I-went-to-an-expensive-liberal-arts-college-on-borrowed-money-and-am-sad-about-the-debt stories must we endure? Nothing wrong with this one, really, it’s just kind of getting old. We understand: there are many people with college debt and they aren’t thrilled about it.

Nick (#1,548)

@awk Then just scroll past them. Don’t spoil it for the rest of us who still very much enjoy reading these stories.

lizard (#2,615)

@awk ugh im with you. did they not understand that money came from somewhere that wasnt their pockets? ya gotta pay it back sometime.

readyornot (#816)

@awk @Nick I really appreciate the “how we paid for college” series, it’s fascinating and a financial story with a lot of humanity. I did really like the diversity of the stories which was present in the first round (parents paid, scholarships paid, I chose the cheaper option), and perhaps awk is pointing out the lack of this diversity now.

Bryan@twitter (#3,166)

“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.”

But…you should know this, right? You spent years at a public college, so surely you could comment on the difference? I mean, in one sense, we’re arguing about intangibles, but surely the education you completed changed your life too?

myrna.minkoff (#272)

Do you still dream of being an archivist? I’m currently in school for it now! AND I got a full scholarship. The dream is still possible! Don’t give up! Also, my loans are on hold while I’m in school so it is sort of like they don’t exist?

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