The Price Of The American Dream
If you’ve received a degree anytime within the last 15 years, I don’t have to tell you that a good education, in modern-day America, comes with a pretty hefty price tag.
This is my student loan story — if you’re anywhere near the same age as me, it’s probably very similar to yours.
Growing up in a first-generation Dominican household, the pressure was on from an early age to succeed.
My parents, of modest means but hardworking and ambitious, made it clear from the beginning that I was expected not just to succeed, but excel.
Bringing home a B on a report card meant I would be in for weeks, if not months, of punishment.
It didn’t take long for me to internalize my parents’ expectations and do everything I could to exceed them.
I got into an advanced high school in my home state of New Jersey, where I brought home top marks every year. When it came time to apply to college, my GPA paid off: I was given nearly a full ride to Boston University, one of the most expensive schools in the country.
When I graduated, my classmates’ panicking about their $150,000+ student loan debt was foreign to me. I sympathized with their anxiety about the years of bills they were facing. But I couldn’t imagine what it actually felt like.
Part of me was just glad that it was them, not me. “How are you ever going to pay that back?” I wondered.
When I returned home to the New York City area, I worked for a few years. Then I decided it was time to get my Master’s degree. I applied and got into to two schools. One was a public school with low tuition. The other was a (slightly) more prestigious — but much more expensive—private school.
After discussing my options with my family, I decided the private school was worth the extra money.
The program was more in line with my long-term goals. Also, I was confident that the “brand name” of the school would open more doors for me in the future. Besides, my boyfriend had taken out loans to go to law school. He didn’t seem to be sweating it.
The school lived up to its reputation. The program was not only intense and exciting, it does indeed prompt a nod of recognition from people in my field when I tell them where I went to school.
My three-year Master’s program flew by, and before I knew it I had graduated.
The thrill of having the degree quickly wore off, however, when I logged into my Federal Loan Servicing account and stared at the six figures of debt I had racked up in 36 short months.
Since college, I have worked in public service jobs, first for non-profits and now for a local government entity. My salary has never come close to breaking six figures. So when I calculated my estimated monthly payment, I just about fell out of my chair.
Fortunately, after doing some research, I realized I qualified for an income-based repayment that lets me start at a lower monthly payment and adjust as my salary increases. Still, even this option puts me on the hook for nearly $500 every month.
Combined with my husband’s student loan debt from law school, almost $1,000 of our monthly income goes to paying down our degrees.
I can’t complain too much, though. Given the income-based repayment option, along with the fact that after 10 years of public service my remaining balance will be forgiven, things could definitely be worse. I’m not sure what I would do if I had to pay four figures of my income every month into the foreseeable future just to pay off my student loan debt.
I still shudder when I remember my husband’s story about a law school classmate who had racked up $350,000 of debt from his undergraduate, law, and MBA degrees.
Short of winning the lottery, I don’t see how he’ll ever pay that off.
The way the system is set up gives graduates very little room for failure. Student loans aren’t dischargeable in bankruptcy. There is no escape for those who can’t make their payments.
For decades, Americans have been told that higher education is the key to a bright future.
I still believe that’s true, but there’s little doubt that, in certain circumstances, it can also be the path to financial ruin.