I Could Have Avoided Student Debt, But Have No Regrets

by Elizabeth Belyeu

My parents wanted all of their kids to go to college, but we knew they wouldn’t have the money to get us there. We were a family of academic achievers and knew scholarships would be our salvation; “scholarships,” in fact, was the literal chanted mantra of my last two years of high school. Any time we discussed college, my dad would make me hold his hands and say it with him, slow and deep. “Scholarshiiips. Scholarshiiips.”

And I did it: I got The Big One. Full tuition, room and board at the same college my big sister went to. My parents thought I was all set. So did I.

What my parents failed to realize was that what they thought of as a side consideration — me declining the dorm to live with Big Sis, who had just graduated and was intending to stay in the area — was for me The Number One Main Consideration. I could barely go to McDonald’s on my own; the idea of moving out on my own was not an option.

When the only job Big Sis could find was in a town two hours away from Scholarship School, my parents expected me to sigh, maybe shed a tear, and take advantage of the “free room and board” part of my scholarship. What they got instead was a nuclear anxiety meltdown as I began frantically looking up colleges in my sister’s new area.

“Hon, we can’t afford that place,” my mom said as I applied to the prestigious local university.

“I’ll get a scholarship,” I replied. Free tuition had come so easily the first time, but it didn’t come the second time, to no one’s surprise but mine.

I decided instead that I’d go to the community college for the first two years, and then transfer to Scholarship School, which had, incredibly, agreed to grant the scholarship at that time if I kept my grades up. Community colleges are usually a great, inexpensive alternative to swankier schools — a way to get the same general-ed classes at a much lower price. For me, though, it was the opposite. And despite my best efforts, no, there would be no scholarship money forthcoming for the out-of-state community college student. I’m pretty sure that even asking gave the financial aid department a good laugh.

The next stop, then, was loans, and my parents made it clear that that was all on me. They would have liked to help me, but they didn’t have the resources; the loans would be mine to pay back, for good or ill (and let’s face it, it’s always for ill). I can’t say I didn’t know what I was doing, because I knew full well that it was a lot of money, and that it would take many years for me to pay it back. It wasn’t a happy thought. But the grim future just didn’t matter compared to the intense need of the present. So instead of attending a respectable full-scale university for free, I mortgaged myself three ways from Tuesday for two years at a community college.

Financially, it was a plainly hideous decision. Thanks to high interest and a low income, I still owe almost as much now as I did when I graduated college eight years ago. I hate it. It gives me heart palpitations every time I think about it.

Despite that, it was the right decision for me. When I left for college, I was such a shy, sheltered, panicky little mess that I couldn’t get through my community college orientation without having an anxiety meltdown in the bathroom. If I’d been thrown into the world all on my own, I honestly shudder to think what might have become of me. Agoraphobia comes to mind.

Big Sis, compassionate and long familiar with my oddities, knew how to handle me, how to coax me out into the world. I learned how to drive in a city, shop for groceries, do laundry, go to the doctor, and how to get lost without panicking. I had a safety net while I learned to Adult; without it, I would never have dared to try.

Two years later, ridiculously expensive Associate’s Degree in hand, I knew it was time to transfer to Scholarship School. Like something out of a novel, my younger sister was starting at the same college that year, under nearly the same scholarship. We got a dorm room together.

“She doesn’t have her license yet,” my mother sighed.

“No worries. I can teach her,” I said, squaring my shoulders. It was my turn to be the adult, and I was ready.

This story is part of our College Month series.

Elizabeth Belyeu is 30 years old and lives in Texas, where she supports her steadily growing TBR pile as a library assistant. She is the author of Secondhand Shadow, an urban fantasy novel published by Astraea Press, and has a poorly-updated blog at elizabethbelyeu.wordpress.com.

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