As of next month, I will have been paying off my student debt for a decade, and will still have about a decade to go. (And I even have a pretty manageable interest rate, unlike most students in the U.S. now who pay so much more than I do.)
For me, the financial burden aside, the issue with student loans is that they immediately make your college experience about paying for college and not about learning or finding a career path.
I graduated in the top of my high school class. I was one of the only people in my family to attend college. I was excited for my future. Academically, it always seemed like I would easily end up “successful.” But I didn’t. Even YEARS later, I still struggled. Why was a capable, smart person who made good grades not “making it?” I didn’t know the answer and I felt like a failure. But I couldn’t see the key underlying issue, which had nothing to do with me – College success is about support.
Loan money is not the same thing as support. Taking out a loan to pay for school does not automatically put someone on equal footing with those who have family funding and/or scholarships. (There is a huge gap to fall into when it comes to qualifying for government help and full scholarships, which is where millions of students end up.)
From the first day of classes, I owed money, I was in the negative, I was already behind. Loans (plus a couple of small academic scholarships) didn’t even cover everything. A soda from the vending machine, putting gas in my car, buying a jacket – These could never be casual, everyday purchases because I was barely scraping by working side jobs as much as I could with a full class load. I was always very aware of what I was unable to do and what I couldn’t afford.
My main focus in college was always money. I loaded up my semesters with as many credits as possible, because every extra semester amounted to more debt. Extra time outside class was spent working, not joining clubs or making the kinds of connections I would need after school. Thinking about abstract things like career goals, five-year plans, or internships (working for free?!) was never even an option for me. A huge gulf developed between me and my peers. I wasn’t fun or social. I never went out or seemed happy. I was just there, barely making it with straight As. I focused on completing my classwork and nothing else mattered. The result was a lot of anxiety.
I never had a “parent’s basement” to move into. I borrowed money for college because my parents couldn’t afford to support me. They had their own financial struggles and four other kids at home. I couldn’t ask for much, and when I did need help, I felt guilty. During school, going “home for the holidays” meant sleeping on a couch, and my summers were spent living with whatever grandparent had an extra room. That’s just how it was for me. I was luckier than some but it never amounted to a support system. I never didn’t feel alone or scared. I remember saving for weeks around graduation and going without meals to pay for a new suit to wear to interviews, and that’s not exactly how you land your dream job.
A lack of support during college has affected my life in an enormous way. I didn’t realize how much personal growth I missed out on until years after college. I was aimless, anxious, and already in debt at graduation. It was the lowest time in my life. I hope student loan debt is an issue we, as a country, can find a solution for soon, before the majority of a generation venture off into adulthood playing catch-up. It’s just too hard.
Recently, I’ve been sharing my college experience more openly, not only because I have worked through a lot of issues from that time in my life, but also because I think it’s important to know that if you did have support for college, you’re experience wasn’t just financially more privileged, it was completely different.