by Emily Christine Fay
How I escaped the student debt trap, and why other Americans aren’t so lucky
This week, I paid off my last student loan. It’s a big deal for me, and something that I’ve been looking forward to for many years. Now I want to do something that I generally avoid doing online: talk politics. Because if there’s one lesson that my student loans purchased, it’s that college should be free and accessible to all.
I spent six years accruing many tens of thousands of dollars in debt to get my two degrees from Purdue, a public land-grant university. I graduated in 2011 and spent the next six years paying back all that money and much more in interest. I began signing the dotted line for my mountain of debt when I was 18. I was a first-generation college student without a damn clue.
But Emily, you might say, you paid it all off super fast! Only 6 years, only your entire 20s, paying for a world-class education! Sounds like everything worked out just great!
And here’s the thing…you’re right. In my specific case, in my life, I was able to pay off the debt with unusual speed. Why is that, do you think? Well, I got a job right out of school and I’ve worked hard to earn promotions. Sometimes I run a tutoring side hustle for extra funds. I pay my bills on time. I avoid splurging on big trips or fancy things so that I can put more money towards paying off my debt. All that good, straight-laced, responsible middle class stuff you’re supposed to do.
But if you and I were friends on Facebook, then you’s already know my real secret for paying off student loans. I married a software engineer.
I married him because I love him. Some of the things I love about him contribute to financial health — a level head, long-term thinking, integrity, responsibility, intelligence, etc. But it doesn’t hurt that his intellectual gifts lend themselves to a career that he loves and that pays well. I followed my intellectual gifts as well, straight to a debt-plagued but enriching degree in English literature and an unexpectedly satisfying but unsurprisingly low-paying career in university student services. Let me be perfectly clear: my hard work is not what pays the student loan bills on time and ahead-of-schedule. My loans were paid off several years early by the mind-boggling good fortune of being in the right place at the right time to fall in love with a future software engineer. As a woman with an unrepentant penchant for liberal arts, I would have had to chase an entirely different career to pay off my debt at this pace on my own.
Not only did I marry an engineer, I married a lucky engineer, and it turns out that I’m pretty lucky too. We have never suffered chronic physical or mental illness. I had a perfectly smooth and planned pregnancy, a perfectly healthy baby, and the insurance to cover both. Our car has never broken down unexpectedly, we have never lost our jobs due to “reorganizing,” we have never had our identities or our possessions stolen except that one time somebody used our credit card number to buy a $400 Uber ride in New York, which took all of 1 phone call to resolve. We have large, extremely supportive families who gave us financial help when we were just starting out. Not to mention that we are white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, US-born, Christian-raised folks. If even one of the things in the list above was different, it would impact our financial lives, possibly drastically.
My point here is that I am LUCKY. If the universe had tilted at a slightly different angle at any point in my life, I might still be paying off loans for another 5 or 10 or 40 years. I am deeply, deeply grateful for my good fortune, and I am painfully cognizant that I could not have pulled myself up from this debt if the universe hadn’t handed me custom-tailored hydraulic bootstraps.
Okay, fine, but this is all me talking about me, me, me. Why do I think college should be free for EVERYONE? Because college is still by far the most reliable path upwards in social mobility. Education, especially higher education (university, community college, trade school, etc) is still the best tool we have for pulling people out of poverty and into economic productivity and security. Individual mileage may vary, of course, but it doesn’t take a degree in library science to track down dozens of reliable social science research sources that back this view. (Here, let me Google one for you.)
Education is a crucial tool for improving individual lives and the overall socio-economic health of our country, but that tool becomes dulled when you match it with crushing debt. I know so many brilliant, hard-working people who are struggling to pay the bills, let alone buy a house, because they lose a huge portion of their paycheck to their student loans. (Do you really think it’s the avocado toast that’s keeping millennials from buying cars and homes? Please.) Many of these folks are doing utterly important social work, like teaching and counseling and caregiving — work that is traditionally feminine, work that is chronically underpaid. I know other brilliant, hard-working people who found out halfway through that college wasn’t for them, at least not in their late adolescence, and now they are struggling to hustle up a living while carrying around thousands in debt sans degree. And it’s not like you can get rid of this debt. Whether you are a student or a parent who signed a loan, whether you finished school or not, there is no bankruptcy big enough to catch those loans. There are only two ways out: pay up or die.
I fundamentally believe that students should have the chance to go to college without being saddled with life-limiting debt. I believe that schools should be able to provide educations with the rigor to produce critical thinkers, creative leaders, and engaged citizens without worrying about whether or not the students get a high enough starting salary to make the degree attractive to a new batch of 18-year-old customers. I believe that graduates from non-rich backgrounds should be able to begin their working lives at the same pace as their peers with rich parents. Because, oh yeah, rich kids don’t have to worry about this stuff.
But Emily, you might say, even if the broke students and their parents shouldn’t have to pay for college, why does that mean that I, the noble Taxpayer, should have to shell out the funds? Well, first of all, I think public university and community college education tuition costs should be funded by taxes on the very wealthiest Americans, not the middle class. I mean, seriously, college is a staggering cost for most middle-class American families — this isn’t just an issue for the poor. Taxing the very rich to support education for the children of poor, working-class, and middle-class Americans is a one-two punch in the fight against income inequality.
I think making college affordable is worth our tax dollars and our civic energy. I want public schools to be truly public and free to all students from that state. We could at least be fully subsidizing the interest so that students only actually pay the cost of their education, rather than double or triple that cost over several decades. I think that’s a half-assed compromise, but saving a generation of students multiple tens of thousands of dollars each is a half-assed compromise I could start with. In any case, we have to do SOMETHING, because this is a crisis that non-rich kids with middle-class ambitions can only avoid with some rabbit’s foot, four-leaf-clover, shooting star, sparkly kind of luck.
And now that my own amazing luck has led me to this moment of freedom, I feel like I can finally speak my mind without asking for a personal hand out, which soothes my Midwestern soul. My loans are paid, and I never expect to see that money again. I don’t regret taking the loans and I don’t regret the excellent literary education they purchased. Speaking as one of “the good ones,” speaking as a loan-taker who did everything just right and ponied up every penny, I will be the first to say that the student loan industry is a blight on our country’s values of equal opportunity. Since when did we have to purchase the pursuit of happiness?