Conversations About Our Student Loans

by Markee Speyer

Student loans come into your life so easily — just sign on the dotted line, and you’ve got money. And then you graduate, and have to get a job so you can pay back the money you borrowed and spent for the past two or 11 years. How do people do it? And why didn’t I know?

These statistics from the New York Times don’t show how student loans affect the average borrower. What does a collective $1 trillion mean when broken down to individuals? I decided to ask around.

N: 24, B.A. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and halfway through the M.A./PH.D. program at the same medium-sized public university in Ohio.

Markee: Do you know how much student loan debt you have?

N: About $20,000, which is pretty good considering one year of tuition at my school costs $20,000.

Markee: And the rest was supplemented by working/parents/scholarships?

N: Working and scholarships. I didn’t receive help from my parents.

Markee: Was it the cheapest option for you? Did the cost factor into your decision about where to go to school? (Both for undergrad and your Ph.D. program.)

N: I only applied to this school. I decided to be a biomedical engineer, and they had a great program. I also think location had something to do with it — to stay near my family. Now, I have a graduate assistantship for graduate school, so my tuition is covered by the University and I receive a yearly stipend. My only expense is “fees” which is between $300–500 a semester.

Markee: So your debt is from undergrad?

N: Yes, half of it is from my first year because I lived in the dorms. Once I moved off campus, I didn’t need nearly as much in loans.

Markee: Did your loans, or paying them off, factor into your decision to get a Ph.D. at all?

N: No, I knew I would need to get a Ph.D. to be the most successful in my field. Once I changed majors and decided to go into Industrial/Organizational Psychology, I knew I had to go to graduate school to do anything with myself. The Graduate Assistantship offer at my school, and its ranking in the top 10 for I/O Psychology were my reasons for choosing it. Most Ph.D. programs in I/O Psychology fully fund their students.

Markee: Do your student loans influence how you look at your future? Do you think that owing that money has changed anything for you in your career (yet)? Do you know the starting salaries of the kind of job you want after you graduate?

N: My fiance and I have talked about finances a lot. He has no student loan debt (his parents paid for his undergrad), and he has a full-time, well paying job. I think it is important to take responsibility for my own debt and pay it off with the money I personally own, and I do not expect him to pay any of my prior debts. We agreed that my first year’s salary will be committed to my student loans, a down payment for a home, and probably a new car. I expect to start at no less than $75,000, but I should be expecting closer to $85,000-$95,000 depending on location.

Luckily, I hate academia, and want to work in the business world 🙂 So I will be contributing the same amount I make now to our marriage the first year I work, so I’ll still be contributing, but also paying my own debts.

Markee: First, I applaud you for having had these financial discussions already!

N: I’ve always had to provide for myself, so money means a lot to me. I choose to be responsible with it, so I think it is important to talk about it.

Markee: So, do you often think about your student loans? Or because you have a plan on how to deal with them, you can kind of put them out of your mind?

N: Since I have a plan to pay them back within a year of graduating, I do not worry about them. I like to take pride in being able to make it through the last six years of my life on my own, and only have 20 grand in school debt. I managed to do it all myself without drowning in debts I will never be able to pay back.

Markee: Yeah, it really is something to be proud of.

B: 24, B.A. in English from a medium-sized public university in the Ohio. Currently employed at a property management firm, and bartending in D.C.

Markee: Do you know how much you owe currently in student loans?

B: Wow, it’s so sad that I don’t know the exact number. I have never thought about that. Probably around $23,000? I’m actually considering going back to school too, just to see how much more I can owe. Haha.

Markee: Did cost factor in to making your decision about where you were going to go to college?

B: It did factor in. I knew I couldn’t go just anywhere — that it would probably have to be in Ohio, or at least at a place where we could get cheap tuition. But my laziness meant I wasn’t actively applying for scholarships, so I went with [a state university], because in-state tuition was cheap.

Markee: Were there other state schools that you applied to? Did the “prestige” or value of education factor at all? On that same note, do you feel like you got a worthwhile education?

B: I only applied to [a state university]. I knew I wanted to go to a respected four-year institution, so I feel that I received what I paid for, in a sense. It was an okay education in an okay program at an okay college, but if I could go back and do it all over, I’m not sure I would go to college if I had to take out loans. I think I would have either found a way to pay for it, or hopped trains and disappeared into the Alaskan wilderness.

Markee: By found a way to pay for it, do you mean work while going to school? Or lived at home? Or applied to more scholarships?

B: Applied to more scholarships — probably lived at home. I was pretty caught up in the idea that I had to go to college. I think the only thing that my college education has helped me with is that I currently work in a property management office because I have a bachelor’s degree, but where it was from, and what it was in, were both irrelevant. So, going back, I may have majored in something i could actually use. Wow. Sounds so grim saying it like this.

Markee: Debt is grim.

B: Tru nuf.

Markee: What is the useful thing you would have majored in?

B: I would have majored in library sciences. It’s part being organized, part being really knowledgeable about very specific things, and part REALLY sociable, because you need to know where to find things, how to look for them, and how to figure out what someone is actually looking for. Totally awesome! So yeah, I feel that maybe that 23K wouldn’t be such a waste if I had majored in library sciences. This is the most entitled shit I’ve ever said by the way.

Markee: But an MLS is a masters degree, so you could do that!

B: Yeah, but I’m not on the right track. I might do it. I have actually have looked into a couple programs in the area. It actually would be a good thing. Interesting story: My parents picked up the first two years on their credit card.

Markee: OMG.

B: I only had to pay for the second two years. But yeah, I can’t believe my mom did that.

Markee: Yeah, that’s cray. What is your repayment plan like?

B: I pay $350 a month for the next 25 years. We chose a long term one so that the rate would be low. The idea is to pay it off before then, right?

Markee: By paying over the minimum. Do you do that ever?

B: Not once. I just…I need or want the money too badly to pay over the minimum.

Markee: How much of your monthly income is $350?

B: Hold on. [A few minutes of calculations] About a tenth, maybe a little less.

Markee: So do you know if you’ve paid off any part of the principle of the loan?

B: A few months ago, I finally started biting into the principle.

Markee: Woo congrats!

B: I drank a beer when it happened.

Markee: So you mentioned that you’d like to go back to school. How does your student loan debt factor into thinking about this next life choice?

B: If I went back to school, I wouldn’t have to pay student loans, and I could actually take extra loans to pay my rent so I could quit one job. That would make my life awesome, because I’d be a master’s student and a server, which would instantly mean more babes in my life. (That last part is a joke.) Once I finally get my master’s, I’d start making a ton of money, and would therefore be able to pay off all my student loans no problem!

Markee: Do librarians make a lot more money than you make now? I mean, you currently are making over $40K — which is a lot for a single, childless person in their early twenties.

B: Yeah, sometimes I don’t remember that I’ve actually got a lot going for me.

Markee: 🙁

B: It’s kind of tough to think of yourself as really worthy, when you’re tied down to debt, ya know? I need to have a good job so that I can pay my student debt and rent, but the only good job that I am currently qualified for is suffocating and not creative. Sorry, kind of venting now.

Markee: No! That’s the point of me asking.

K: 26, B.A. in English from a small liberal arts college in Ohio, an M.A. from a medium-sized public university in Ohio, and currently working on a Ph.D. at a medium-sized public university in New York.

Markee: How much student debt do you have currently?

K: I have honestly pretty much never looked at the number. Maybe once or twice I have glanced at it. I accidentally saw it the other day when I was accepting summer loans, and it seems as though I have somewhere around $50,000 in debt (yikes?).

Markee: And from which parts of your education did it come from?

K: I probably had this amount of debt after getting my B.A., but my parents paid those loans off within a year(ish), and I am forever grateful to them. With a balance of $0, I felt it was okay to take federal subsidized loans out to supplement my M.A. stipend (which, admittedly, was plenty to live off by itself). I took loans for both of those years (no summer). I’m about to enter my third year of study in my current program. I’ve taken out the maximum amount of federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans for my first two years. These I justify because my 1st year stipend was $15,000 before taxes, and this is New York. I plan to take the max out again this year (obvi).

Markee: So do you have an idea of how much debt you’ll have when it’s all over? Also, do they affect how you think about your future job?

K: Ideally, I’d like to stop taking out loans after this upcoming year. I don’t know if that’s realistic according to my life history. If I am able to turn off the spigot, I’ll have like $70K and change. If not, it would top out around $100K. I don’t think the debt will affect my job prospects, so much as my quality of life. If I don’t get a tenure-track job within five years of graduating, I would need to reassess my job future AKA downsize my dreams to teaching high school or something. At this point, I am realizing during this conversation, I am delaying a certain inevitable. I’m living like a middle class person while in school and all, but guaranteeing that I’ll be living like a grad student once I’m out of school. Unless I marry a millionaire.

Markee: Right. So, are you aware that Public Service Loan Forgiveness exists for those who work in public service and nonprofits?

K: I do. That is another possibility that hangs in the back of my mind. However, I do not have much faith that the program will still exist/be solvent by the time I would be able to take advantage of it. (If it were there, though, I would most likely look into it what with my bleeding heart and debt situation.)

Markee: Do you feel like taking out loans has affected your life in any way?

K: Well, if I think about what I could/would have done in that year after my parents paid off those loans, I don’t know that I would have done anything differently. This was in 2007/8 and while shit was real with the economy then, it wasn’t like it is now. I am still at this point, whether delusional or not, glad that I am so far into grad school and not someone who is just beginning (and using it as a refuge from the real world). What could I do with a B.A. in English? Stay in the Midwest and teach high school? Ultimately, I would end up making the same amount of money. I have never been interested in being a home, or car owner. The only advantage I could see in not continuing my education would be getting a jump start on saving for those things. I am also not interested in marriage, or children. Therefore, I don’t feel like what debt I have is that strangling because I don’t have to budget the cost of a wedding, or children into my future. Additionally, because I don’t have any loans from private companies, and because the interest rates for government loans are low, I am not too worried about the size of repayment. Finally, I believed then, as I do now, that student debt is far more valuable (or, less personally damaging) than consumer debt. I have a negligible amount of consumer debt which helps me to rationalize my other debt.

[5 minutes later]

K: If I am going to be honest, I am making a secret bet with myself that my dad will end up helping me again with these loans. I would be embarrassed to take the help (I’ll be 30 years old), but not so much to say no. When my mom died, she left a serious amount of money for her kids, which we are not allowed to have right now (for obvious reasons), and I am really betting on the fact that that money will be going to wiping out a large part of my debt. It’s a big risk, but one I’m clearly taking. I would feel terrible about this except for the fact that this is kind of how my family operates. Man, I just told you a deep secret!

Markee Speyer is a graduate student herself, and would like to know about how you financed your education, if you’ll tell her. Photo: Shutterstock/Robert Asento