A federal judge on Thursday blocked President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness program, declaring it illegal. The decision left me sad and frustrated, even though I paid off all my college debts.
I was thrilled when I first heard about Biden’s student debt relief. Even though I hadn’t borrowed any money for graduate school and no longer had my undergraduate loans, many of my friends and colleagues still had theirs. Some of their interest rates are so outrageous that even a decade later they still owe almost as much as they borrowed. Many of them have multiple jobs.
They were living — and living — my old life of burnout.
Rising tuition fees and predatory loans have created a situation where unless you are lucky enough to get a full scholarship or come with a lot of money, students are vulnerable.
When I was in graduate school, I had three jobs. At worst, I was a full-time student and held the office of a tennis club. And the content coordinator of a local magazine. And a graduate assistant — a position that came, miraculously, with a partial tuition waiver. I also started getting into freelance publishing.
I said yes to every opportunity. It was the only way to pay the tuition.
I was also a volunteer. Although I had programmed myself by the minute with work and lessons, I also became captain of the US Tennis Association. I was elected treasurer of my college’s chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, an honorary society for students studying English. I was also the editor of the literary magazine for my MFA program.
I didn’t think I could say no to any of these things, even the ones that didn’t pay. I needed it to boost my resume to get a good job after graduation. Then I would never have to live like this again.
Somehow I passed my masters program. And of course, I was so exhausted at the end that I couldn’t celebrate, but hey, I made it, didn’t I? It would be a short-sighted dish.
Rising tuition fees and predatory loans have created a situation where unless you are lucky enough to get a full scholarship or come with a lot of money, students are vulnerable. The choice is either to work non-stop during school or sign anything to offset the immediate costs.
I refused to take loans as a graduate student because this lack of understanding frightened me as an undergraduate student. At the time, I had covered my tuition in several ways: through my parents’ modest education fund, federal Pell Grants, and Connecticut’s needs-based Capitol Scholarship Program. In many ways, I was lucky.
There is nothing more alarming than logging on to Nelnet three weeks into the semester and seeing that I had already accrued interest.
But even all of that didn’t cover my full bill. For the rest, I needed loans amounting to a few thousand dollars per semester. I qualified for subsidized and unsubsidized loans. The subsidized loans didn’t accrue interest while I was a student, but the interest on the unsubsidized loans started accruing immediately.
There is nothing more alarming than logging on to Nelnet three weeks into the semester and seeing that I had already accrued interest. That was enough to make me forgo any type of student loan for college.
Was it worth it? Maybe. The system I was using was flawed, but it seemed smarter than signing up for additional loans at the time. When my friends, family, and teachers found out about my three-job system, I tried to joke, “What’s a little hard work?” Their worry said everything I wouldn’t admit: that this system wasn’t sustainable, that I was close to burnout, and that if I didn’t take a nap, I might fall asleep in returning home.
I was so focused on finances that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. What I did was frankly reckless. But I was young, scared and desperate. I didn’t know any better – and that’s something we need to change now. If students are going to borrow money for college, they need to understand what they are accepting. They should never be blinded by a lack of basic information, such as the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans.
The same applies to the distinction between public and private loans. While Biden’s debt relief has focused on federal student loans, there have also been issues with private lenders, including the lawsuit against student loan giant Navient. In January, the company agreed to settle claims that it intentionally targeted students who couldn’t repay their loans by writing off more than $1.5 million in debt. The company has denied any wrongdoing.
To put it simply: the system needs work. Even those in college administration can see that there are problems.
Don’t get me wrong – there is a place for financial aid, including Pell grants, scholarships and maybe even loans, if the terms are fair and the borrower understands them. Research has shown that student loans increase access to funding and add to student diversity, which is great, but the data also shows that women and people of color are disproportionately more likely to have debts.
Again, I’m lucky. My loans were minimal. Without them weighing me down after graduation, I had the time and space to reflect on my job choices and career in a thoughtful way. I didn’t have to take the first position that came up if it wasn’t a good fit. When I wanted to quit a bad job, I could – and I did.
I couldn’t have done that if I had loan repayments. This conscious decision-making is something that, frankly, everyone deserves. If people have the opportunity to work for companies that are well-suited to their skills and interests, the benefits can also extend beyond the individual to companies: research suggests that disgruntled employees can cost billions to their employers per year.
Student debt relief is a way to empower people to be people first and loans second. Everyone could have a chance to win in the process.
There will always be a place for hard work. There will always be a place to skimp and save. But we have to do these things because we choose to, not because our college system is broken.