- Kira Welle
Confessions of a Student Debtor
By Kira Welle, Winona State and Metropolitan State graduate
I don’t know how I feel about my student loan debt. I don’t really think about it and haven’t had to since late August of 2019 when I started graduate school. I slip into a shame spiral when I think about how ignorantly I funded my post-secondary education. I feel like I should’ve known better. Who wouldn’t want to avoid thinking and feeling like that? Between in-school deferment and the Covid-19 payment pause, I almost forgot that I still owe tens of thousands of dollars of several federal and private student loans. I finished undergrad on May 4th, 2012, close to $90,000 in debt. As of May 7th, 2023, my student debt stands at $54,775.96 and growing due to interest. I didn’t go to Harvard or a private school, so how did I graduate with a BA double major in English and Political Science from a state school saddled with Ivy League debt?
As a soon-to-be-graduate of the class of 2007, my generation was thoroughly indoctrinated with the idea that a four-year degree was our ticket to the middle class and, therefore, “The American Dream.” It was the catalyst towards the grown-up job and the picket fence. It was legend. Lore. It was the path, but I wasn’t sure if it was my path. I wasn’t ready and I felt pushed to make choices about a future I wasn’t sure I pictured. I was as ambivalent then toward going to college as I am now toward the pile of money it’s cost me and my parents. I am grateful for choosing to get my bachelor's degree. It’s hard to imagine my life any other way than exactly how it is right now, but my decision has had serious financial consequences and (un)fortunately the mind is quite adept at allowing two opposing truths to coexist.
I applied and was accepted to Winona State University. I don’t remember how much yearly tuition was at the time, but I knew that it was a hell of a lot less than the $43,000 a year the sole private school to which I applied would cost. I thought in order to be successful as a writer, I needed to go to a name-brand school (I was very much in a Rory Gilmore phase). My admissions interview was the first time I really thought about the actual dollars-and-cents college price tag. It was incomprehensible. $43,000 each year, for multiple years in a row? Where was it going to come from?
I assumed, because the lore foretold, that my parents began ferreting money away for my college fund the moment I became a plus sign on a pee stick, but I was wrong. I didn’t have a college savings fund. So, there my mom and I were at the kitchen table, filling out my FAFSA. She had done this two years prior with my brother, but, despite this, we still didn’t know what the hell we were doing. I think we cried a few times. What did FAFSA stand for and why was it so hard to say? My understanding was that the FAFSA was where you showed how much money your parents made and then they (they who? The guy who runs FAFSA?) gave you the rest to make up the difference and that was how you paid for school. I wasn’t entirely wrong, but I didn’t understand it needed to be paid back. When we determined the federal loans wouldn’t be enough to cover everything, we applied for private loans because my mom kept saying I, “would need money to live on.” This was another thing I neglected to think about. To this day, I don’t think I understand the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans, of which I have both. At 18, I had made a monumental financial decision that was as consequential as it was uninformed.
Incumbent undergraduates are expected to learn and know what the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is before the application process even begins. It’s low-hanging criticism to blame an individual for their ignorance, but student debt is a shared crisis and therefore requires a shared solution such as evening the financial literacy playing field with standardized curriculum. Folks don’t want to admit most of our beliefs about money come from the home, so if you don’t have informed or engaged adults to help, you’re shit out of luck.
One recession, four and a half years, and a very expensive, unplanned extra semester later leading to a $6,500 private loan at an interest rate of 13.25%, I had earned my golden ticket. Yet, once I graduated, I didn’t know how to get where I wanted, and I needed a job, any job. Through a class connection, I got “any job” just as the six-month grace period concluded and my loans entered repayment. It wasn’t in my degree field, and it messed with my sense of identity not to do what I’d gone to school for. My first several postgraduate jobs were temporary and sporadic. Unable to make payments, I had to utilize all available student borrower resources. I tried income-driven repayment plans, economic hardship forbearances, non-payment approaching default, but they weren't sustainable. And I still failed to understand when interest was and wasn’t accruing. In what seems to be the cruelest twist, my current job is my highest paying job, and also coincides with the highest variable interest rates I’ve ever seen. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? I see a glimmer of light under the Biden-Harris Administration’s Student Debt Relief Plan, where I qualify for a $10,000 reduction in my federal student loan debt. It’s not a solution, but it’s a start.
What was once a ticket to the middle class feels like the very thing that will keep us from ever getting there. We followed the path, and it feels like we’re being punished for doing what we were told. Debt if we do, damned if we don’t.
Fuck Student Debt.