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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