Too Rich for My Blood

Today I had to fill out a form for a grant for housing assistance. It’s for money from a fund established here at school for grad students who live on campus who have two or more kids. The grant is typically about $1,250 a quarter toward rent that runs $6,125 a quarter, a nice percentage. At the end of the application, it asks how much educational debt you have in total.

Black folk tend to feel that education is the way out. I had an almost full scholarship to Penn as an undergrad. It was full less the amount the government said your family could afford to pay, which in my case was $5,000 a year. So my student loan debt coming out was about $20,000 because, well, you know that the government has little idea of what people can really pay. And $20,000 for an Ivy-League degree really ain’t bad. At all. But then on some bad advice from said Ivy-League’s career services (I should sue them once I get my law degree), I got a Master’s from Penn, thinking it was my foot in to get a Ph.D. since I didn’t have a liberal arts background. Terminal masters degrees are often called cash cows, because you usually get little financial aid and the University makes a killing off of you. So after one year, my $20K debt became $82K. Yes, a $60K masters. I’m suing. Seriously.

But it doesn’t stop there. Because once I get accepted into the PhD program here, at Stanford, I realize that even between my husband’s salary and my PhD stipend, we can hardly afford to pay rent and buy food, let alone put the kids in day care. So here comes more loans. Year 1: $7,000. Year 2: $14,000. Year 3: the year I have to pay for law school. Guess how much? Really. Guess. UPWARDS (because my budget allows for childcare) of $50,000 (I’m actually embarrassed to say exactly how much upwards). For ONE miserable year of school.

So the total educational debt I have for 8 years of college and beyond is upwards of $150,000. And I plan on being not a high paid lawyer, but an academic. Did I make a tragic error of judgment along the way? Is it always true, like many of us, especially in the browner communities, believe, that educational debt is “good debt” that’s worth the investment?

Last week, an article was published in the NYTimes about a NYU college student who had a lot of student loan debt. It basically blamed her parent and the school for her even going to NYU “without asking many questions about whether they could afford a $50,000 annual tuition bill” because they had a “grim determination” to “do whatever they could to get [the student] into the best possible college.”

I feel like I have been doing that, doing whatever it takes to get into the best schools (hence the $60K masters degree), but perhaps at the cost of mortgaging my family’s future. But that’s because I’ve been taught to believe that I deserve the best, just like everyone else, despite money. But what’s going to happen if I come out, yes with a PhD and a law degree, but in an economic climate where the environment is screwed up and the stock market is tanking and there are hurricanes and earthquakes every other day and the world has basically gone to crap and nobody is hiring sociologists and legal academics?? And my kids are still going to need to go to good schools, and I’m still going to want them to play football (the world’s version, not the American kind), and take dance lessons, and of course, sing and play the piano. But the banks will most definitely still want their money back. They’ll call my house phone day and night and once I get that turned off they’ll call my cell phone and once I get that turned off they’ll find a way to stalk me on Facebook. That day is coming, I can smell it.

Is educational debt still always good debt? Do you, dear reader, feel as though all the education that you have and paid for (or are still paying for) has been worth it? Will you encourage your children to take out the loans to go to the school of their dreams? Or will you encourage them to be “practical”, turning away from the $50K a year schools in favor of a cheaper, but less prestigious school?

I still have about 4-5 years to go, meaning my debt will probably be around $200,000 by the time I’m done. I’m taking donations. For real. I’m not kidding.

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4 thoughts on “Too Rich for My Blood

  1. This breaks me. My daughter is starting high school in the fall & there is no college fund. I was a young mom when I was in college & qualified for Pell grants & also received a few small lonas. God willing she won’t be a young mom & will not be considered an “independent” student like me & will need loans, grants & the works. Yes I want her to go to the best schools but I already know where the money will come from…LOANS & I weep for her (& our) financial future.


  2. What’s interesting to me is how we equate “best” with “most costly”.

    I think it’s a racket and we’ve been buying into it for generations. Sure, some schools have better quality educations than others. That’s a fact. However, we sometimes disregard smaller, lesser-known schools where the educational experience is comparable or outshines that of larger, more well-known, “reputable” schools.

    I think we should definitely try to plan for college for our children. We should make every effort to have a college savings account. However, we should not feel daunted by the idea of paying colelge tuitions that we simply cannot afford. As someone with about $88k in loan debt, I’ll still be paying this off when my son enters college and I’m NOT interested in amassing more.

    What’s my plan?

    Make sure he does exceptionally well in school academically so that he can be a viable candidate for as many scholarships as possible.

    What’s his dad’s plan?

    Make sure he does exceptionally well in sports so that he can be a viable candidate for athletic scholarships.

    My hope is that somewhere in between those plans, we can get at least his undergraduate education paid for. If not, we will have to discuss other options. Between us, we make 6 figures so that’s going to eliminate any “low-income” grants or options. To qualify for his headstart program, we have to pretend like I abandoned them, so they can’t count my salary. Hey, you do what you have to. I don’t see that being possible when he goes to college though (even though my mom and dad the same thing).

    We’ll explore all options: big schools, small schools, Ivies, D1s, state schools, etc. We’ll do what works for the entire scope (education quality, location, and cost). At the end of the day, college is what you make it and what you get out of it, not just what you pay for it.


  3. As the spouse of a grad school student (and you can click on my name to find out my views about that), I have to say that its probably the best debt you can have. Loan forgiveness is something I started looking into as we both get closer to graduating (I will be getting a BS) The way I evaluate educational debt is by letting the person with the highest potential to make the most money go the farthest first (I hope that made sense). That way we have some security when we are finished and defaulting on loans won’t be an option. I keep telling myself that this education is worth it and that is helping us all get through it and realize the payments that await us six months after graduation. I really won’t know for sure until we have retired if it’s really truly worth it.

    I hope my children don’t have to take out loans. Being an African American I have noticed that we believe hopes and dreams and scholarships are all kids need to go to college, so we don’t save money. I don’t know why this is the case, but I’m going to do my best to make sure I can help my kids pay for their education.I see loans as a final resort and even then I still am considering paying their loans for them and allowing them to save their own money if they get stipends, etc.

    As far as school choices, I believe that we will have to be realistic. If we cannot afford Ivy League, then we will have to let go of that option. But there are not so prestigious schools with great opportunities so I think we will make sure their degrees have “workforce value”. Because I have two kids, I am all about fairness but I hope scholarships and assistantships, etc will allow them to get to the schools they hope to attend that are above our price range. I’m willing to make impossible things possible for my children and I hope that the educational debt we incur today will be the reason they can attend college with ease in the future.


  4. There’s a discussion in academic circles about the myopic view of those advisors and professors who often fail to present any realistic perspective about what life is like as as an academic. Someone should be encouraging grad students to measure the cost of school with the earning potential. Love or our fields ain’t enough to pay the bills–school bills or any other kind. I think this is part of your point here. I also second the notion that we don’t have to choose the most expensive schools . . . of course, I already know where I want my children to attend and it’s waaaaayyy expensive.
    And I’d love to see you sue your institution!


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