Monday, November 11, 2013

Student Loans

I've had a lot on my mind lately and had been debating what to write for a few weeks now. Then, in the course of my normal work-day research, I happened across this New York Times article. Yes, it's over a year old, but the article still speaks truth today.

I was one of the lucky ones; I still am, when I look at the people in this article and then look at my own situation. I started off going to an over-priced private liberal arts college. Even with a half-tuition scholarship, I was still taking out over $10,000 in student loans. My first wake-up call was meeting a classmate who nonchalantly proclaimed that she'd be "completely fine" if she had $100,000 in debt (yes, you are seeing the right amount of zeroes) when she graduated with her Bachelor's.

At the end of my first and only year there, when I realized just how much money my comparatively 'small' loans were and how much more I'd have to take out to complete my degree, I dropped out. I moved home, got a job, and enrolled at a community college.  I spent the next two years working almost full-time (35 hours a week) while going to school full-time to get my prerequisites taken care of at the much more affordable price. At the end of my stint there, I applied to several state schools and one private, but much more affordable, college. I finished my BA from University of Michigan-Flint. Yes, I was a year and a half later than I had expected, but it was so worth it.

I exited school and started job-searching. My own father had told me that, with a college education and good work experience, I should be expecting to start a job at an approximate salary of $45,000 per year. Granted, this false assumption wasn't necessarily his fault. In his day and age, that could be the base salary for someone coming out of college. I soon realized that was not the case with my graduating class. I got a low-paying job as an office manager of a company that then went bankrupt, taking a month of my unpaid wages with them. Unemployment covered just over half of my monthly bills. I moved between relatives, across states trying to tack down a job. Eventually, I found a full-time position. Unfortunately, they were paying full-time employees an hourly wage that was less than I made in high school. But when it comes down to it, and it's the low-paying job or nothing at all, you take it and you learn how to make it work. The irony of it was that there really wasn't room for me to complain. I wasn't the only over-educated/over-experienced and underpaid person there. There were people with Master's degrees doing the same work.

To anyone in school, going into school, or thinking about going back, I'd like to offer the following suggestions:

  1. Don't overlook state schools - Generally so much more affordable than private institutions, these are just as good as most of them. Even better some of the time. 
  2. Don't be afraid to take time off - If you need to take time off to save some money or to make a decision about your degree choice, do it. 
  3. Do get a job - This will not only help your financial situation in school, but it will also help you build your resume when you need to go job-searching. Even if it's a work-study position, it is so worth it. 
  4. Don't get over sticker shock - Please, please, please. There is a very simple exercise that I wish someone had done with me. Sit down and look at the student loan balance against your projected income after graduation. When/if you realize that student loans will be more than your lodging costs each month, it's quite the wake-up call.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel. I got a new job, one that actually utilizes my skills and experience and, while it doesn't pay as much as my dad thought it would, is getting there and actually pays my bills every month. 

And those student loan balances? They're going down. Incrementally, but they're still going down. This month, I have finally paid off the first of my student loans! I was so excited to send off that last check and strike that line-item from my budget. But is it now extra money? Not by any means. All that happens now is that the amount that was going to that loan, is now rolled into others. The faster I can get out of debt, the better. I don't even like to think about my student loans. 
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