Every once in a while, when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I watch college commencement ceremonies on YouTube. These rituals remind me how perverse our higher-education system is—and of the empty idealism that colleges and universities sell us: We are here today, donning our ceremonial robes and caps, to recite the traditional vacuous platitudes and wish you well in paying off high-interest student loans for which we are in no way held accountable. Let us now further romanticize our fair institution by singing the alma mater and conveniently forget that tuition has gone up 1,120 percent since 1978. Good luck out there, kids!
I’m a consumer of those vacuous platitudes and a victim of this system. After finishing my master’s degree in 2008, I found out—as in, I didn’t already know—that I had $200,000 in student debt.
Some well-paying professions might make this amount manageable, but for a bioethicist like me, it’s been crushing. Many things had to go wrong for this to happen—or right, if you’re a school or a lender. Although the hefty amount I owe is unusual, my experience is not: Motivated by an idealistic view of education and career and vulnerable to predatory, disingenuous, or at least negligent institutions, young people and their families too often take on large amounts of student debt. No matter how much they owe, the consequences of that debt can be outsized. These young people may have to abandon their educations early; pay back far more, after interest, than they took out; manage exceptionally exploitative loan terms; shoulder serious, chronic mental distress; delay important life decisions; and participate less in the economy than they otherwise would.
I don’t question the importance of higher education. But the detrimental effects of crushing debt shouldn’t be the shared experience of millions of young people and their families. Currently, about 40 million Americans owe $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, and it continues to grow. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, students who borrow graduate with an average debt of $29,000 for a bachelor’s degree. In 2014, 69 percent of graduates had student loan debt, and from 2004 to 2014, the average college debt grew at more than double the rate of inflation. Even with smaller amounts of debt than mine, starting a life quickly becomes very hard. So how do people get to this point? We’ve debated student debt for decades, but our understanding of how it shapes a young person’s experience—from naïve teenager to indebted young adult—is still limited. Here’s what happened to me.
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When I was 17 I was just starting to get the hang of school. My siblings and I had the privilege of expecting we would attend private colleges, which seemed reasonable—others in our family had done it, friends had done it, so we should be able to do it. My grades weren’t good enough for Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, so after getting rejected I quickly applied binding early decision to one of its conference rivals, Connecticut College, where my brother was a senior. I was very eager—and very fortunate—to get in. It was one of the most validating moments of 17-year-old Sam’s life.
Despite its cost, Conn sold my family on its purportedly outstanding financial aid. When I was a freshman in 2003, the comprehensive fee, including tuition, room and board, and other fees, was about $40,000 a year; it climbed to about $46,000 by 2007, my senior year. A decade later, the comprehensive annual fee at Connecticut College (and many private colleges) is more than $60,000 per year. And about half the students pay full price. That must be because a bachelor’s degree from a private college is $80,000 more valuable than it was 10 years ago, right? No, that’s crap. These days, I can’t imagine any bachelor’s degree that is worth $240,000. But my parents couldn’t know tuition would rise so much, and my brother seemed to fare OK there—he got substantial grant funding that helped him leave with much less, and more manageable, federal debt.
I knew that my parents were financially stressed because of a fire that destroyed most of our home when I was 15 and because my dad had been struggling with his career for a few years. Given my brother’s experience, we expected that Conn would help us make school affordable. Like many colleges websites, Conn’s website even says, “Don't let financial concerns discourage you from applying to Connecticut College. We offer generous financial aid.” In my parents’ attempt to protect me from the brunt of their financial hardship, they minimized my understanding of what it would take to pay for school.
When I began college I knew Conn had given us a fair amount of grant funding—money that didn’t need to be paid back—and I believed my parents and small federal loans were covering the rest. I visited the financial aid office to sign for these federal loans each semester. Like so many students, I thought signing loan documents was just a routine. Having no appreciation of financial adulthood, I didn’t really understand what these loans were or what repaying them would actually entail—and in a very different student loan terrain than their college days, my parents didn’t either. But I thought I understood. I was in the right place, talking to the right people, doing what I was told was necessary. The college made no serious effort to explain my loans until an exit interview at the end of senior year.
Having followed the common advice to study what I loved, I had abandoned my initial plans to focus on biology and majored in music performance, but also minored in philosophy and was a few courses short of pre-med. By my senior year, however, I realized I was drawn to a subfield of applied ethics called bioethics, which deals with controversial ethical issues in science and medicine. Well-meaning faculty could only advise me on careers in academia. Academia was the setting I knew, so that became my plan: build an academic career in bioethics.
At my exit interview, the college reviewed only my federal loans with me. There was no mention of any private loans. And because student loans are deferred as long as you’re in school, I hadn’t received a bill. Everything they described to me was still an abstraction.
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If only I had been friends with 2016 Sam in 2007, then maybe I would have done things differently. But I wasn’t. So, still unaware of my total debt, I went on for a bioethics master’s degree to bolster my chances of getting into a good Ph.D. program. After starting courses at the University of Pennsylvania, I took out $70,000 in loans for tuition and living expenses, which I supplemented with income from part-time jobs. The associate director of the program suggested I work at Penn full-time and do the degree part-time for free. Looking back, that was obviously sage advice, but I thought the sooner I started a Ph.D. the better.
Save that one brief comment, no one, in five years of higher education, advised me differently or really broke down the cost of my education choices. Why would they? Schools benefit immensely from this ignorance. In fact, several students, faculty, and friends—many of whom had high-paying jobs—told me not to worry about my loans and that I’d pay them back without undue stress.
After completing my master’s in 2008, I got a job working as a contractor science policy analyst at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. I was lucky to land a good, bioethics-related job in a very bad economy. Like most people with loans, I started getting repayment letters within six months of leaving school.
I already knew that I had about $70,000 in federal loans from Penn and some federal loans from Conn—but I had no idea I also owed $100,000 in Sallie Mae–serviced private loans.
I was shocked. It turned out that my parents and Conn had had me ink them during my semesterly flurry of document-signing without discussing them with me. Now I was making $50,000 a year in an expensive region with close to $200,000 in loans. I was completely unfamiliar with the—at the time very limited—repayment options. It was a nightmare.
The decisions were unwise, certainly. But while I was in school, my parents were too stressed and embarrassed to take stock of my loans. They wanted me to focus on doing well and felt, as do many middle-class families, that they were in a financial Catch-22: They made too much to get enough aid but not enough to cover the cost of college. Financial aid awards come once per year, giving them little time to plan, and again, they expected similar aid and tuition rates as my brother. They’d lost much of their savings dealing with career challenges and the house fire. They didn’t want to take me out of a school I was heavily invested in. Given the grant funding I received every year from Conn, even if they had pulled me out and sent me to our flagship state school—the University of Wisconsin—the full cost there still could have left me with a fair amount of debt.
I now saw what my trust and ignorance had cost. So I was angry. But I felt especially betrayed by the well-manicured dream factories that had educated me.
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When I first started receiving loan statements, I was so distraught and confused that I missed a few months of payments and got a delinquency reported on my credit—not an uncommon occurrence for postgrads. After months of receiving inconsistent information from Sallie Mae, I got my payments in order. I made interest-only payments for my private loans because the interest rates were too high for me to make full payments. (Some of my loans had rates of 8 to 9 percent—compare that with the less than 4 percent for which one currently can get a mortgage.) I enrolled in the new income-based repayment program for my federal loans, and for years I tried to refinance my private loans to lower my interest rates. I attempted to refinance about half a dozen times but was rejected each time for having a weak credit score, delinquency, and too low a salary.
Some relief came in 2011 when I started a new job as a contractor bioethicist in NIH’s Division of AIDS. This was very fortunate, given the economy and the limited career options for someone with a master’s in my field. My salary jumped to about $70,000, an increase of almost 50 percent. I was grateful but keenly aware that this meant something very different for me than it would have without the unrelenting scythe of my debt.
With every bump in salary comes a bump in payments. My current payment is about $1,500 a month—that’s almost 40 percent of my take-home pay—and despite having paid more than $75,000 toward my loans, I still owe about $190,000. Remember, I started with $200,000 in debt. With more than eight years of some of my private loans at 8 and 9 percent interest, and my federal loans at more than 6 percent, Sallie Mae and the federal government have made it very hard to make progress.
My debt may take decades to pay off and ultimately cost more than twice my original balance. Depending on my income, my payments could peak at almost $2,000 a month. Without a substantial boost in salary, there’s no way to get ahead of my debt. How do I get that salary? The surest way for me to move up in my field would be to get a funded Ph.D., but that would entail deferring my loans and allowing my interest rates to add almost $50,000 to my current balance.
Is it worth leaving the field that I’ve already invested so much in? What about jobs or programs that offer loan repayment? Unfortunately, many of these jobs (for example, some federal ones) are very difficult to get (I’ve tried and am still trying), and many programs (such as Peace Corps) aren’t worth the cut in income. I also worked for a for-profit contractor for part of my time at NIH, so several years of my time there don’t count toward the public service loan forgiveness program. Can I transition to a career that makes more money but is stable and reliable? How do I stay nimble in this economy when education is so expensive but so essential? Will I ever be able to afford a family?
Plagued by these questions and by years of significant and unrelenting stress over managing my debt, I hit a low point last year. In preparation for a speech I gave at one of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s student debt press conferences, I learned about “auto-default”: Under Sallie Mae loan contracts, your loans are automatically placed into default and sent to collections if a co-signer dies. My grandmother—who is 93 and has Alzheimer’s—is a co-signer on some of my private loans. According to my loan contract, when she dies all $100,000 of my private loans will go into default. This means that I could be required to pay the full loan amount immediately or risk being sued, having assets seized, wages garnished, and my credit wrecked. In most circumstances, student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy—and, under some contracts, if you start bankruptcy proceedings, your loans can be placed into default.
After screwing over a lot of people, this insane policy got slammed with media coverage, forcing Sallie Mae to modify it, but it wasn’t clear if these changes applied to me. So I spent several months trying to get out of this trap. I could barely focus on anything else. I had several Sallie Mae reps confirm that when my grandmother dies, I would auto-default and owe $100,000. I thought maybe I should get a lawyer, flee the country, or sell a kidney. I was finally put in touch with a rep from Sallie Mae who sent me an official letter stating that, essentially, because my grandmother had no assets I would continue to make my payments as I had been.
Fortunately, after that, I was also able to refinance some of these loans with a good, financially stable, and not-likely-to-die-soon friend (thanks, Steve) as a co-signer. After six years of attempts, I was actually able to start paying more of my principal balance.
My situation has finally stabilized, and I should be able to avoid default, though things haven’t improved otherwise. My payments are still crushing, they will be around for decades, and they severely limit my life choices.
* * *
And all of this to go to school.
Yes, I’ve been more fortunate than many: I was educated at elite schools, I live in a city with a strong economy, and I’ve had two good jobs. But I still struggle to find ways to retool myself for higher-paying careers that would help me dig out from my debt faster or to advance in my current path. My parents and I are working on ways to improve my situation. But, like many baby boomers, they are burdened with their own financial responsibilities, like taking care of my grandmother and their own health and saving for their retirement. It’s true that my parents and I made poor financial choices, but they were ones that the system strongly encouraged. I’ve worked hard to take responsibility, make my monthly payments, advance in my career, and live modestly. While I’ve been lucky enough to avoid some of the most disastrous consequences of having student loans, like default, I will still spend the majority of my emotional and intellectual energy trying to find a way out of this, rather than trying to forge a career and a life.
The amount I owe is uncommon, but my story is not. The data show that millions are struggling with large amounts of student debt—debt that will result in some of the painful experiences I have gone through. So at a minimum, I hope this serves as a lesson to stay informed and temper your academic ambition with consideration of the financial costs and the investment you’re making.
But that doesn’t get to the heart of the systemic problem: Education is outrageously expensive and too risky; schools indoctrinate students and their families with lofty ideals and benefit from their ignorance without accountability; and students and their families can borrow at unprecedented rates, allowing schools to continue hiking tuition. Though its advent was surely well-intentioned, our loan system is confusing and exploitative. In a country we often think of as a meritocracy, it’s appalling that we have an education system that frequently does more to punish students for getting educated than it does to reward them.
Ultimately, like many other enlightened countries that recognize education as a critical public good—foundational to the economy and a just society—we need to move toward free public education, including graduate school. Where will this money come from? Given the billions we spend on federal student loan programs and the disgusting amounts of money many college presidents and administrators make, I’m sure there’s plenty of money that could put us in the right direction. To start, we need more substantial efforts to refinance and forgive student debt. There are millions of people like me who would like to get on with their lives.
Read more in Slate:
- Bernie Sanders Has Some Weird Thoughts About Student Loans
- Student Loans Might Be Driving Up the Cost of College. So What Do We Do About It?
- A Nightmare Scenario for the Student Loan Program
- The New York Times Should Apologize for Its Awful Op-Ed on Student Loans
- The Stunning Failure of Our Student Loan System, in Two Charts