Several years ago, while driving around Los Angeles in a state of equal parts fury and despair, I called my cousin to tell her how sick of it all I was, that I was tired and couldn’t take it anymore. Then I turned off my phone. I needed silence. When I turned it on again a few hours later, I was greeted with frantic voice-mail messages — back then, most people still checked those — including a good number from my mother. She was terrified of what I might have done.
I immediately called her back and apologized in my most soothing Southern tone for causing concern. “Ma’am, I had no intention of killing myself,” I said. “I would never do that to you, because you’d still be on the hook for these loans.”
It was a very handsome college recruiter who, almost a decade earlier, had come to my public high school in Houston and convinced me that if I wanted to attend a prestigious college — private, out of state, even — it was possible, no matter what my surroundings or financial circumstances suggested. My mother made clear that I would go to college, but neither she nor I had entertained the idea that I might go to schools like that.
Inspired by Recruiter Bae, I applied for as many scholarships as I could find and won 17 in a semester. But I needed additional money to cover the cost of Howard University in Washington.
So I turned to Citibank. I took out about $10,000 for the first year, but it soon became clear that I’d need much more to keep studying at Howard and living in Washington until graduation. After I received my diploma, I immediately owed almost $800 a month in private loans, with 12 years to pay it off. That’s not counting the few hundred dollars I pay each month in federal loans. Fortunately, the government gives me more than twice the time to cough it up.
This may be the part of my story where you question my judgment. Why did I choose a fancy school if I didn’t have the money? How could I not have understood the financial commitment I was making? And if I’m so far in debt now, why am I writing this and not pursuing a more lucrative career as a doctor or lawyer — or, as one relative put it bluntly, “When are you going to work in a building?”
I’m not dismissing my responsibility for this. But along with many other 17- and 18-year-olds, when I went to college, I didn’t know anything about student loans, interest rates or rude private debt companies that hound the living hell out of you. All I knew was what I was told: College was the ticket to social mobility, and good students deserved to go to schools that matched our talent and ambition. Folks like me, who come from working-class backgrounds, are told to chase down a bachelor’s degree by any means necessary. But no one mentions just how expensive and soul-crushing the debt will be.
Still, I get it. I made the decision to take out loans. The voices in my head don’t let me forget that.
At my graduation, on a beautiful day in May 2007, my commencement speaker and our future president, Oprah Winfrey, spoke passionately on the toxicity of fear. “Don’t be afraid,” she told us. “All you have to know is who you are. Because there is no such thing as failure.” I felt invigorated by her remarks. As I told everyone at the time, just being in Oprah’s presence probably raised my credit score.
But reality set in quickly with a congratulatory letter from Citibank, stating the terms of my debt and repayment, which could be deferred by two six-month periods, but that’s it, no more, and after that, I’d better run the bank its money or else. It’s blasphemous but I’ve been entirely unable to follow Oprah’s wise words. Instead, I live in fear — fear that one day I may fall too far behind on payments, and fear of what that would mean for my mother, who co-signed my loans with great trepidation.
There’s no relief for my wallet or my self-esteem. Every time I fork over another payment, I think about all of the other ways I could have financed my education. Why didn’t I take more part-time jobs? I was in Washington — why didn’t I try to date some closeted politician and be his well-compensated secret? Or spend more time at the campus gym and land a job stripping? I could have paid for classes in cash!
And for so long, I took to heart the poisonous folklore about student-debt martyrs who selflessly scrape by to pay off their loans — those “I only ate Spam and paid off my $160,000 debt in 96 hours” stories. I blamed myself, thinking that if I had just worked harder and sacrificed more, I wouldn’t be in this situation.
But the truth is, a lot of this was always out of my control. The student loan industry is a barely regulated, predatory system, and with Donald Trump in the White House and those equally useless people in Congress, oversight of the industry is becoming nonexistent.
I was trying to do the right thing for myself and my family. Despite the cost, going to college is still the only way high-achieving, lower-income students can hope to get a good job with a decent wage. It’s not our fault that no one told us the system beyond higher education was set up for us to fail.
I am a member of that class of college students that graduated into a financial crisis, not long after a 2005 bankruptcy bill was passed that made private student loans nondischargeable unless borrowers could demonstrate that loan repayment put an “undue hardship” on their finances. Spoiler: The undue-hardship exception has virtually never applied to anyone. It’s so vague that it’s basically meaningless.
I think of that slippery little phrase every time I field a nasty phone call from my student loan oppressors. If only I were a corporation or a bank, privy to loopholes, tax havens, lenient bankruptcy provisions and so many other measures that allow it to be treated far more humanely than actual human beings.
Like so many others, I’m muddling my way out of a trap. I’ve come to accept that I’m simply doing the best that I can with the choices I made in earnest.
And I have to be good to myself. Not only is not enough attention paid to the circumstances in which our collective crisis has been created, but even less is paid to the everyday victories of people trapped in it: The days we manage to get out of our beds despite feeling completely weighed down. The times we decide to treat ourselves because we deserve it. The joy-inducing invention of that block button on the iPhone so that sometimes we can simply say, “They’ll get that money when I got it.”
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