A story of the sordid and wretched world of student loans.
Fiscally irrational? Fiscally irresponsible? Desperate? Hopeless. Distressed. Disgusted. Ashamed. Embarrassed. Out of options.
All of these words, adjectives, verbs, etc., describe my state of mind when it comes to my student loans. There are many, many, many more words that I could use to describe my slave pact with the federal government, but you didn’t come here for a diatribe on how irreparable, reprehensible, deplorable, and despicable I think the student loan crisis is, you’re curious as to what makes me dumb af. I didn’t just wake up dumb af. No, I took a couple of turns, a right and around the block, before I landed there. Let’s delve into some of those mistakes, shall we?
I graduated high school in 2004 and started my college career at Virginia Commonwealth University. A school that was eight miles from my home, a mere 10-minute ride if I caught all of the traffic lights.
VCU was around the corner. I so badly wanted to experience what it means to be a “real” college student, that I lived on campus. I was awarded a few grants and some student loans when I received my financial aid, and that was enough to cover my room and board, classes, and books. The difference between commuting from home, and living on campus was substantial. Had I had the knowledge that I have now, I would have commuted. And saved the money. Living on campus, and going to class was about 13k a year. Housing accounted for about 50% of that.
Here I am, living in the dorm, walking to my classes, eating at the dining hall, living my best life, being a “real” college student. Then about three weeks into the semester, I get a check in the mail. It’s addressed to me, and it’s for thousands of dollars. Sidebar: When you start college, especially for a freshman, it’s usually your first time being on your own. You’ ’re just now entering the world of “adulting.” We don’t graduate high school being money managers, or financially sound. I was still 17 at the time. Name me a 17-year-old who isn’t going to get a check in the mail for over 3k, and not race straight to the mall and FYE (I was addicted to CDs at the time). I’ll wait. You can’t can you? I think the student loan refund process, is and was designed to keep the average college student in debt. No broke college student is turning down “free” money.
Student loan refunds are NOT “free” money. Let’s breakdown how you typically receive a student refund. For those of us who do have to apply for financial aid, we fill out what’s called a FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It asks a lot of questions about your income, your parent's income if you haven’t worked, demographics, contact information, which school you’re going to, your housing plans (on campus or off campus), and so on to determine your eligibility for aid. Once it’s submitted you receive your SAR, which is your Student Aid Report, and on it, you receive your EFC or your expected family contribution. This is determined by your family’s income, benefits, any assets you or they may have. It’s the information found here that will determine the type of student aid you are eligible for. I received grants, loans, and work-study. Grants, are money that you are awarded that you do not have to pay back. A loan, is what it sounds like, something you have to pay back. And federal work-study is basically your school giving you a job, using federal funds, you have to qualify for it.
Once you have applied for the FAFSA, gotten your SAR, and your EFC, you receive your award. Now, technically you don’t receive the award, it’s disbursed to the schools you designated on your FAFSA. Your schools' financial aid office will receive it, apply it to your account, and in some cases, you may have a credit balance. In my case throughout my entire collegiate career, I did. Once the money has set on your account for a particular time, your school will disburse it to you, in the form of a check or direct deposit of some sort. Now we get to the “free money.” Except it’s not. These are funds that are the result of a credit balance, from funds that were awarded to you, that you have to pay back. Remember earlier what I said a loan was right? It’s something you have to PAYBACK. So instead of heading to the mall, the beach, getting your hair braided at a REALLY expensive African Hair shop, taking your boyfriend out for his birthday, buying him clothes for his birthday, buying a car, paying your bills, you should have paid it back. Because here is something I didn’t know when I received that first check, but soon found out hereafter. You are not required to keep the money. You can reject it. Or you can place it in a savings account and use it to prepay your tuition for next semester to keep your debt down. You can invest it in an account and let it grow, get a return on your money. You can use it to pay down some of your student debt. Any of these choices would work. Any of these choices would be better than what you ACTUALLY did with it. Which is wiped the shit from your ass with it, and then lit it on fire. No, you placed it all in the shredder. No, I think you went to the top of the highest building in your city and threw it off, just to watch it fly in the wind. Ok, so you didn’t actually do any of those things, but you may as well have, because what do you have to show for what you did do? Student Loan Debt in the six figures.
So life happens. You have a child, you lose your job, so you decide to become a part-time student. You get married, your child is now two. You don’t see her anymore because you are in class from 8 am to 11 am, and at work from 11:15 am to 9 pm. She’s a toddler, she’s not up when you get home. You start to question your motherhood. You’re being selfish. Your daughter is not going to know who you are. What are you doing? So what do you decide to do? Transfer to an online school.
Online school is not bad. I actually am grateful for it, because, without it, I wouldn’t be the educated person I am today. What is bad tho? Picking an online school because you saw a commercial for it, and it looked cool. That’s how I ended up at the University of Phoenix. A for-profit institution that was super expensive. I didn’t do research. I just picked a school and ended paying twice what I would have paid if I would have done my research. Going to school, whether it’s a community college, traditional college, or online is an important decision, one that should not be taken lightly. It’s also one of the biggest decisions you will make financially. DO YOUR RESEARCH.
So I graduate from Phoenix, with a bachelor’s in finance. And I decided that in order to be competitive, I need a Masters. Having learned my lesson, (at least when it comes to Mistake#3), I did my research. I found that I could attend a not for profit school, in my state, online, and pay regular tuition. Which led me to Liberty University. Unfortunately, I have yet to learn my lesson about the “free” money and found myself deeper, and deeper in debt. That, and some hard life lessons I had to learn along the way, which we will save for another post. So 18 months later, it’s time to graduate. I put on my cap and gown, walk across that stage, my mom and stepdad are there, my daughter, my best friend. I’m beaming with pride that I’m able to show my daughter that you can overcome obstacles and hard times to achieve what you want.
Fast Forward four months later and the student loan bill comes. Oh yeah, all this time I’ve been living the life. Hopping from school to school. Changing my major because I woke up and the sky was blue. Living off of all that “free” money, I didn’t have to make any payments. That’s right, while you’re in school your payments are deferred. Which essentially means, you don’t have to make any student loan payments. That is until you graduate. This brings me to the BIGGEST mistake.
Mistake#4: Dumb AF
After I get that notice in the mail that says I have a student loan payment due that is over 1k due. I panic. My soon to be ex-husband at the time was not working. I was still dealing with the ramifications of my bankruptcy. I was supporting my daughter. I only make $18 an hour! I can’t pay 1k a month! My rent is only $625! How do you expect me to make payments that are almost double that? How will I survive? Wait. Your Student Loan Payments are Deferred as long as your enrolled right? Where’s that FAFSA….
Masters of Arts in Human Counseling: Executive Leadership. I picked it because the description on the degree seemed like it would complement an MBA. And Executive Leadership that would look good on a resume right? Another $40,000 later. I now have an undergraduate degree, an MBA, and a Masters of Arts.
Now this whole time I’ve been in school I’ve been working right? At a bank, in a call center, in collections. Which are honorable jobs, but I don’t need three degrees to work them right. Here’s the part where I tell you how I’m figuratively paying for it. Here’s the issue I keep running into, time and time again. I have the education, but not the work experience. Wait, what? I’ve always been told that to make more money, you need a degree. Period. Go to college, when you graduate, you become a millionaire, right? It’s that easy. Except it’s not. Work Experience. Most employers want you to have experience doing a job, in addition to having an education. Go Fudging (my pseudonym for the actual F word) figure. All this time, I’m thinking, just work this job so I can provide for my family, it’s temporary. As soon as you graduate, employers will come rushing to you like those Zombies in that World World Z movie when they sense a healthy human, and you’ll be fine. You have THREE degrees. You’re going to be a millionaire times three! Except I’m not. All that time I wasted, all that money, trying to figure out what I wanted to do, I should have invested in my career. I was so focused on attaining a career, that I missed out on real-life job experience. Now I’m stuck. Or it feels like it. Because I don't have the luxury of quitting my job and waiting around until I find something in the field that I actually went to school for. So I keep getting job experience. Just not the right job.
How I’m literally paying for it. My student loan debt is more than what we currently owe on our home. It’s in the six figures. The proposed payment was more than 2k. Am I paying that? No. And you know why? Because of what’s called an income-based repayment plan. Honestly? When I found out about this plan, I was so fudging mad. I felt soooo stupid. Remember that panic I felt when I received that first bill in the mail? You know, right before I decided to get my second masters so I could give myself a little more time? So I wouldn’t have to pay anything back? You know, so I could get a higher paying job with my lack of work experience? All for naught. If I had just educated myself (I know, I see the irony in it, trust me), I would have known it existed, Instead of tacking on another 40k in debt. I would have called, explained my circumstances, and been giving a plan I could afford. Instead? Well, you know what happened instead. Keep in mind, income-based repayment plans are typically reserved for recipients of federally-funded student loans, Those with student loans from private issuers, are often out of luck.
Mistake, after mistake, after mistake. I made them, over and over again. I like this quote by Nikki Giovanni, “mistakes are the fact of life. It is the response to the error that counts.” Making mistakes, that’s going to happen. No one’s perfect, no one will ever be perfect, show me that person who says they are, and I’ll show you a purple moon. Huh? Exactly, it doesn't’ exist. My advice? As if you asked for it. Listen to the words of Eleanor Roosevelt: “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them yourself.” So learn from me. Do your research, think about your decisions, and remember that for every action there is a reaction. It’s how you react that matters.