Learning Experience: Two Bachelors Degrees and Deep in Debt

In my family, going to University was never a question. My sisters and I were raised with the idea that higher education was our ticket out of poverty. Like our peers, we clung to the American dream of graduating and establishing careers that would allow us to fulfill our dreams of traveling, building a family, owning a family home, and eventually retiring in comfort. What we didn’t count on was the crippling debt we would have to surmount.

I graduated in June from Seattle Pacific University. After working full time for the last four years, I earned two bachelor’s degrees, and roughly $140,000 in debt.

I was so steeped in the ideology of higher education that when the bills came in for tuition, books, and housing, the fear associated with the prospect of not having a degree to my name exceeded my anxiety at my mounting debt. So much so, that when the grants and scholarships that I had received began to run out, my mother consented to take out parent-plus loans to keep not only myself, but also my two elder sisters in college, under the condition that we would repay the loans in her name.

Some of my peers were not so lucky and had to drop out. Six months later they were working minimum wage jobs attempting to repay the loans they had been able to take out – still without their degrees.

Now watching my fellow graduates struggle to find jobs, move back in with their folks, and slowly realize that their degrees are seemingly worth only a little more than the paper they are printed on, the return on our decision to invest in university is coming up short.

In the weeks leading up to and following graduation, I’ve heard all of the suggestions, reprimands, and encouragements that many new grads hear. Thankfully, I have also heard from my school’s financial services office.

By attending a mandatory exit counseling session, I learned what I specifically owe, and what my options are for repaying the behemoth sum, so that potentially, one day, my credit might survive to purchase that home in which my family will grow up and where my mom will retire.

This counseling is not available everywhere unfortunately. In hearing the stories of peers graduating from other universities, the lack of knowledge when it comes to how their loans work, who is servicing their loans, who their loans are with, or even how much they owe, is shocking. I was able to pass on what I had learned, but when they went to find out for themselves they faced walls of unhelpful phone representatives and fine print.

This is not okay. Education should be a right, not a privilege for only those that either have wealth or happen upon the right tidbits of information. Sallie Mae, the loan servicing company contracting with the Department of Education, needs to be reined in and made to answer for their negligence in handling loan accounts.

Furthermore, education needs to be re-subsidized by the US government as it was decades ago. We need to place our students first and establish a budget that reflects our investment in our future as a nation.