By Andria Tieman
I am 34 years old and I have more student loan debt than I can ever pay off. As much as I regret the six-figure number I owe, I can’t regret having to take out the loans because I am actually exactly where I wanted to be, career-wise. It’s a catch-22, but the deed is done, and I’m living with the consequences. So, how does this happen to a sensible girl from the Midwest? I’m the daughter of a banker and a financial planner who should have known better and I kind of did, but I also needed the degrees I have to get the job I wanted.
Beginning at the beginning, I grew up in a small town in the upper Midwest—30 minutes from Canada. Most people who are not from that region have no idea how small a town can be. I graduated from high school in a class of 66 people, and that was the largest graduating class in ten years.
Because I grew up in such a small town, there were no AP classes at my school. There were few chances to take cheaper college classes through a community college and there was no chance of graduating a year early so I could spend a year working and saving before going to college. I did work part-time jobs in high school, usually more than one at a time, but saving up enough for college tuition while making $4.75/hour seemed like an insurmountable goal.
Eventually I set off for a state school and was lucky enough that my parents agreed to pay the first four years of tuition. The problem was, I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life or major in. I had always been told that it didn’t necessarily matter what you majored in as long as you had a degree, but upon graduating it seemed that my BA in English was not much of a qualification for anything. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but I was sensible enough to know that I needed a real job with a steady source of income while trying to build my portfolio.
After graduating after five and half years of just trying to come up with a life plan, I decided to go to grad school. After all, that’s what you do when you aren’t ready to be a grownup, right? Despite the fact that I picked this plan on a whim, it ended up being the best thing I could have done. Yes, my MFA was not a career making degree, but it challenged me, forced me to grow up, made me a better writer, squashed my ego and gave me a bit of clarity.
My stated purpose for getting the MFA was to work in publishing and indeed the school that I went to was one of two in the nation that actually owned a publishing company. I got firsthand experience working with authors, fact checking, editing etc., but what I learned in doing so, was that I was not very good at most of that. I gamely applied for a few jobs, but my heart wasn’t in it and I got no responses.
So I needed a new plan. While in college and grad school, I had worked at Barnes & Noble. I actually enjoyed many aspects of that job, but didn’t want to make it a career. I also considered continuing grad studies and being a professor, but watching friends and fellow grad students adjunct at three different schools earning a small amount per class, I realized that that was also probably not a sustainable career option for me.
I decided to become a librarian, which required me to get another masters degree. Unfortunately, there are only about 65 Master of Library and Information Sciences programs in the US, Canada and Puerto Rico, and none of them were within regional tuition distance from me. This was in the very early days of online education, so that wasn’t much of an option either. I took the GRE, applied to two programs on the other side of the country, and ended up moving to Rhode Island. I had saved up enough money before moving to pay rent and feed myself, but not enough to pay tuition, so I took out more loans for that.
In the meantime, I had taken out loans already for five semesters of graduate school, and though tuition was far less than the maximum loan award, I took it all and used it to pay off credit card debt. $10,000 x five semesters equals $50,000. But by going back to school, I was able to stop the interest clock on half of those loans (the subsidized ones), and I tried to pay the interest on the others when I got the quarterly statements.
My second masters degree - since it was out of state tuition - wasn’t even completely covered by taking out the maximum amount of loans per semester. After borrowing another $40,000 for four semesters of tuition, the economy bottomed out and library jobs became next-to-impossible to find. I managed to land a 19-hour-a-week position that barely covered my living expenses, but loan payments were completely out of the question at that point so the interest just piled on.
Eventually, I got another 20-hour-a-week position and was able to start making small payments, but by that point the amount owed had ballooned to $100,000 and even with paying more than the amount owed per month, the accruing interest was outpacing anything I could actually pay. I started the strategy of paying more on the biggest, highest interest loan, and that has the principal actually going down. However, in the last year, I have paid over $6500 toward my loans, and the amount owed has only gone down by $2000. A lot of that has to do with the fact that my loans were sold to an outside vender, and it took them six months to set me up again for repayment. During that time, I had no one I could make payments to, so the loans grew like the blob when it gobbled up another body.
Many of my friends think it’s ridiculous that I’m even trying to pay back these loans because I work for a qualified non-profit so they’ll be forgiven in ten years anyway, but I can’t predict the future and I can’t really bank on that. Also, the way the law is written at present, forgiven loans count as income, which is taxed, and I certainly can’t afford that. It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul, but I borrowed the money knowing that I would have to pay it back, so I’m obliged to at least try.
I really do wonder what life would be like without this huge scythe hanging over my head. I think about my student loans daily; I hem and haw about whether to put money into savings or retirement instead of paying more on my loans. I don’t have children, I don’t own property and I know that I would never be approved for a home loan because my debt to income ratio is so insane. I also would probably not save enough for a down payment because looking at money sitting in savings makes me feel guiltier about not making an extra loan payment that month.
I have a very good job now doing exactly what I wanted to do. I actually have my dream job, which is something not many people can say, and I was uniquely qualified for it because of my particular degrees, so I can’t regret getting them. I still feel like I can’t completely enjoy my success though because taking on that much debt seems like such a stupid thing to have done.