We Were Poor, And College Was The Answer to All My Problems (Right?)

When I was growing up I never dreamed of being an astronaut or ballerina. I wanted to be a teacher, because it seemed like a steady, secure job. My family was poor. There’s not a fun, witty way to say that, so there it is. We were three kids, a single mother, and two cats, and our household income never topped $24,000. The average was $17,000.

We were poor, I knew it, and it sucked. It’s hard not to notice when your family buys food with a weird card that only works at the grocery store. Or that you frequently get letters with “FINAL NOTICE” emblazoned across the front. Or that you are never, ever supposed to answer the phone in case it is “a bad man wanting money.”

College was positioned as The Answer To All My Problems from a very young age. I think that happens with a lot of decently smart kids from poor families—college is the way up the ladder, the way out of a tiny basement apartment, the way to a six-figure income that will help not just you but also, hopefully, your family. You didn’t want to beat the kids who made fun of your Wal-Mart clothes, you wanted to join them. Upward mobility and all that.

College admissions offices were the gatekeepers to the Middle Class, my brain the key. Right.

I always knew I was going to college, and I always knew it was going to be My Thing. It would be on my back, my work that would hopefully get me a scholarship. My mom couldn’t even get approved for a Parent PLUS loan, so it was my name alone on the dotted line.

I did everything they say you should do, at least the things I had control over—gazillions of devoted extracurriculars, volunteer service, excellent grades, the hardest classes. But I went to a poor, rural school with three AP courses. My family only had enough money for me to take the ACT once, and with no fancy prep classes or training work or even books to help me practice.

After applications and offers came in, I had a couple of 50% cost-of-attendance scholarships. But once you factored in the cost of a private vs. public school, they were just as much or more than a public education would be without a scholarship. My name, my back, my thing. I decided to go to a community college for a year—it was cheap, I lived at home, my mom fed me—and then I transferred to the cheapest public university in my midwestern state.

I completed my degree in the standard four years. I worked 15 hours a week and still maxed out all of my federal aid, including loans. At graduation, I had $38,000 in student loans before interest.

I am working, thankfully. Right after graduation, I had four part-time jobs that added up to about 42 hours a week but only $1,000 a month. Then, six months later, I managed to secure The Perfect Gig. Perfect in its stability: full-time with benefits and a pay grade that lets me pay my bills). I make $28,000. I still can’t believe how fortunate I am.

I feel rich now, flush with money. My salary is more money than my single mother ever made when I was growing up. But it’s is also just a few thousand more than the in-state cost of attendance for one year at my public university. I’ve opted into an income-based repayment plan, and my student loan payment started at $0 a month. Which means: After getting my degree—the answer to every poor smart kid’s problems—I’m still really, really broke, deemed broke enough to not be able to pay back my loans yet. At this rate, I’ll be paying them still when I’m paying for my own kids, if I have my own kids, to go to school. If I weren’t on this program, my monthly loan payment would be more than my rent.

Which doesn’t make college really seem like much of a solution. I look at my student loan statements each month and feel angry and jaded toward a culture that tells poor kids that the only way to make anything of themselves is to take out a ton of loans to MAYBE have a tiny chance at competing for a job that dozens or hundreds of other people are also competing for.

I feel like someone tricked me along the way by telling me college was the answer, and I feel stupid for not having questioned that. I did enjoy college. I don’t regret my degree. I DO have a job now. But I don’t think that means the system worked for me. I think that means I’m lucky.


Kenzie Moore was almost a teacher. Now she writes and works at an arts center. Fewer kids, better wall art.


18 Comments / Post A Comment

joyballz (#2,000)

too close to home.

skippersarah (#2,314)

“I look at my student loan statements each month and feel angry and jaded toward a culture that tells poor kids that the only way to make anything of themselves is to take out a ton of loans…”

Even if you didn’t grow up poor, this still applies. My parents made enough money that I couldn’t qualify for any need-based scholarships or grants, but not enough that they were going to pay for any of my school.

orangezest (#317)

I understand how you feel, but it seems to me that this is actually a GOOD example of the system working!

You rose above your circumstances, you went to college and made a smart financial choice based on what you could actually afford, you successfully transferred and graduated (not a small thing for people who start at community college), you have a job making more as one person than your family ever made growing up, a year after graduation and that you describe as “perfect”, and you were able to limit your student loans enough that they’re all federal and you’re not required to pay back any more than you can afford per month.

I understand that $38,000 seems like a huge, mind-boggling amount of debt, but actually… isn’t this exactly how the system is supposed to work? (Btw, even if your income never goes up — which I’m sure it will, because you’re doing well so far! — your loans will be totally forgiven after either 10 or 20 years.)

You’ve achieved a LOT and you should be proud of it.

@Emma Peel This is exactly what I was thinking. $38,000 is nothing compared to what some people borrow to complete a professional or advanced degree. Count yourself lucky.

sea ermine (#122)

@Emma Peel Yes! Also, having a college degree will give her more options going forward to apply for better jobs (and better paying jobs) or to move up within the organization she already works at.

Chris P (#3,640)

@Emma Peel Careful, IBR will hit you with a tax on that waived debt if it is not repaid within what I believe is 25 years. However, those who work in the public sector for 10 years don’t have to worry about that.

orangezest (#317)

@seaermine $38K is a lot — probably unfairly a lot — to borrow for undergrad as someone who tried to do everything right financially and made prudent choices. No question.

But there’s no way you can read this and conclude that for her, getting a college degree was a mistake.

@Chris P Yeah, don’t know if her organization is a nonprofit (in which case it’s 10-year forgiveness) or not (20-year forgiveness, and the tax issues you mention).

sea ermine (#122)

@Emma Peel I think you meant to reply to Andrea Spivey@facebook instead of me? I agree that $38k is unfairly a lot for someone who did everything right financially, my comment was just trying to add that now that she has the degree it will hopefully open more doors for her that will lead to things she wouldn’t have access to without the degree (and maybe will pay her enough to make manageable payments on those loans).

Also, I think when some people are reacting to $38k as if it’s not much, it may be because so many of us also did everything right and research all of our options and took the cheaper school and got help from wherever we could and still graduated with much more than $38k just because the options we had weren’t enough or because there is so little education provided about how to pay for college, so that may be influencing a few of the responses to that number. Just a guess though!

01234566789 (#3,664)

@Emma Peel @Emma Peel how is this an example of the system working? on a salary of 28k she’ll never be able to pay off those student loans. did you miss the part about “If I weren’t on this program, my monthly loan payment would be more than my rent”? yeah she doesn’t have to make payments now, but one day she will, and then she won’t be able to pay rent. how is that a solution? how is that upward mobility? yes she has a job now, but what if she gets laid off? are you aware of the economy? of how difficult it is to find work? she knows she’s lucky and she’s grateful, but a 28k salary with 38k in debt is a far cry from the system working. and all of the other comments about 10 years of public sector work—that’s not a solution either. she was lucky to find a job in the public sector–what about the thousands of us with just as much (if not more!) loan debt who STILL can’t find a job, in the public sector or otherwise?

allaswan (#578)

DO look into the 10-year federal loan forgiveness program for people who work in the public sector. This applies to ANY non-profit, which your arts center probably is…

orangezest (#317)

@allaswan THIS THIS THIS (if she’s already in income-based repayment, she’s on the right track and will get forgiveness in 10 years)

jessjess (#3,543)

@allaswan OMG. You have possibly changed my life with this comment. I didn’t know it was for all non-profits, I totally qualify! Sending my form for certification ASAP…

ImASadGiraffe (#982)

@jessjess Just keep in mind that the program started in October 2007, so it’s only payments made since the program started. 120 payments would put you at loan forgiveness in 2017, at the earliest.

My date is somewhere around November 2019…at least I know it’s coming!

readyornot (#816)

don’t you feel like if we could time travel katie holmes back to 2006, she could use a little joey potter death stare on tom cruise and the world would be a better place?

StudentLoanBubl (#3,646)

Just wondering if anyone has been doing any reading on possible solutions to this student loan thing? I read a comment from a gen Xer recently about how bad they felt for the current generation, as the landscape has altered significantly.

“The list-price tuition at U.S. colleges and universities has risen by roughly 7% per year since the early 1980s. The inflation rate has averaged just 3.2%. These are some of the numbers that fuel public anxiety about how to pay for higher education. ”

“In 1975, states allocated roughly $10.50 to higher education for every $1,000 of per capita state income. Today the figure is around $6.00, despite a massive increase in the number of students seeking postsecondary education.

In 1975, the states picked up 60% of the tab for a year in college while families shouldered 33%. The federal government picked up the remaining 7%.

Today, the states pay only 34% while families bear 50% of the cost. The federal government’s share, through grants and tax credits, is currently 16%. Much of this surge in the federal government’s share is a temporary response to the 2008 financial crisis and recession. Over the last 30 years, the federal share has normally been in the 10% range.”

In the 1960s, an average person with a high school diploma could live a comfortable, middle-income lifestyle. That statement no longer holds true.

The only concrete thing I can come up with is to have all payments pay down the CAPITAL first. Because, seriously? Compound interest? On tens of thousands of dollars which can (effectively) never be discharged in bankruptcy? That is just untenable. And becomes a social ill.

Given that this is a population that is by definition -lol!- educated this should be a lobbying group that can – and is properly motivated – to effect some constructive change.

While having payments apply to the capital and not to the interest (which will continue to accure, but not compound) does not “wipe the slate clean” it DOES make it more manageable as opposed to totally UNmanageable and a total complete nightmare. And, interest rates should also be capped at 2-4% not 6+ %.

Anyone have any thoughts/knowledge about this? Any thoughts on how this will (or won’t) be dealt with in the future?

This isn’t an issue that affects me personally, but I do have friends who are buried under large mountains of student loan debt. And that compound interest thing seems just totally unnecessary and the difference between “forever burdened” and “light at the end of the tunnel”.

CJSinner (#6,322)

@StudentLoanBubl THIS! Boy, have I been telling anyone who will listen alllll of this for the past couple years. It is TOTALLY UNTENABLE. And it’s really, really the high interest thing that grinds my gears. Why am I paying 6.8-7.25% compound interest on my $70k in student loans — why is it ok for my balance to go UP on Income-Based Repayment? Something needs to be done. There’s a reason my generation (I’m 27) isn’t buying houses and having kids like previous generations. You better believe that’ll affect the larger economy for YEARS.

Morbo (#1,236)

More of these, and less of the “How can I possibly afford to make it on a budget in NYC” stories, please.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

To be honest, I’d like to be sympathetic, but it’s difficult.

First, it has been quite a few years since a university degree automatically provides entry into the middle class (if you’re starting from a low base). Some degrees are worth more than others, but being in possession of a university degree (regardless of the major) doesn’t count for much anymore.

Second, if you want to make a lot of money (i.e., the six-figure salary), going into teaching isn’t the best avenue for getting there. My family has quite a few teachers in it and I certainly respect their job and commitment to their classes, but I think few people choose teaching for the financial compensation. If you want to make a lot of money, there are certainly degrees which lead to higher-paying jobs.

Third, if you work at a non-profit, then of course you’re not going to make much. You may feel rich now making $28k/year, but I suspect that the feeling isn’t going to last too long.

Finally, going to university isn’t the only way to get a good job. For example, you can become a plumber or electrician and do quite well without going to university.

I’m glad to hear that you have a job which you enjoy, I really am. However, you appear to want to earn a six-figure salary without thinking about which jobs and which degrees are likely to get you there.

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