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Why Choosing the ‘Cheap’ College Still Left Me Drowning in Debt

The outraged reaction to Elizabeth Warren’s plan to eliminate student debt reveals a myth many Americans still believe about our education system

Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts senator and 2020 presidential candidate, just announced a bold plan to eliminate student debt for about 95 percent of Americans — and make college free while she’s at it. I was thrilled to read it. It would mean I’d be eligible for a clean slate, a prospect that would have quite literally changed my life when I graduated from college in 1999. Twenty years later, I still carry about $25,000 in student-loan debt. And I’m reminded often that this debt is my fault.

The pushback to Warren’s plan was swift and predictable. Conservative personality Ben Shapiro lamented how unfair this would be to the lenders. But the more revealing (and quite common) scorn was reserved for people like me, former low-income students who still carry debt. In one tweet, GQ‘s director of audience development, Joel Pavelski, summed it up: “I don’t know if people are aware of this but you could just not attend a college you can’t afford.”

I’ve heard all this before. I’ve heard about my lack of “personal responsibility.” I’ve heard that if I’d just been more sensible, I would’ve picked a cheaper school and left with no debt at all, or I should’ve just not gone to college in the first place if I couldn’t afford it. My debt is a personal failing. My debt is the consequence of educational greed, of trying to live beyond my station and my means.

Many people believe that debt is a problem only for people who don’t work hard enough. They believe hard-working and responsible people either avoid debt up front or spend years eating gruel instead of Manhattan dinners to pay off their loans quickly. What of the debt-saddled among us? We’ve probably spent the last several years post-grad charging Coachella vacations and buying avocado toast and lattes instead of chipping away at our personal mistake.

The truth is more complicated.

The fact that I went to college at all was a big deal in my family. I’d grown up with a single mother who was the first person in her family to attend college, and she made around $12,000 after graduating, an income she had for most of my young life, an income on which she raised four daughters. By the time I hit high school, she’d become a high school English teacher who had doubled her income to a whopping $24,000 a year, still nowhere near enough to fund a fancy private education, much less provide us with health insurance or even vacations.

Upon graduating, I had the grades and test scores for a much better higher education than the local state school, but not enough academic prowess to land a full scholarship compared to my classmates with 4.0 GPAs and perfect SAT scores. I was just an above-average student from a poor family. So I did what above-average students from poor families do: I decided to attend Middle Tennessee State University, a nearby four-year college that is virtually unheard of unless you really, really like college football, and to be clear, we are not even talking about the one Peyton Manning attended. The tuition at the time was about $3,000 for the year. I was poor enough to grab a Pell Grant for a few hundred dollars, but lost it after the first year because my mother got a $2,000 bump in salary for agreeing to oversee the school newspaper. I got a discount because my mother was a state employee, too.

But I still took out loans each year, and that reason was practical also. I was fully responsible for my school costs and cost of living, which included transportation, car insurance, food, books and room and board. My middle-class friends were covered completely by their parents, including tuition. Their parents wanted them to work for disposable income, but not to lose track of their studies, the main reason they were attending college in the first place. Most of us at MTSU were first-generation college students, the only people in our families to have a higher education than high school.

So while my classmates sometimes took jobs for spending money that had them working some weekends, relying on their parents to fill the gaps, and pay for family vacations, groceries, gas money, clothing and rent, I had to work to cover all my expenses.

I was terrified of working too much and fucking up school, something I’d seen multiple family members and other poor peers do. They took jobs in food service and retail and often ended up having to work so much to cover their expenses that they flunked out and dropped out. So I tried everything to avoid that slog: I took work-study programs and monitored the front desk at the dorm room. I worked on the paper and literary magazine to grab a stipend of a couple hundred dollars a semester. I once got a small scholarship for making straight A’s one semester. But none of it covered everything. I eventually took fast-food jobs and server spots wherever I could get them. I still pawned the title to my car several times a year to cover extras like car repairs for my shitty used auto, the only one I could afford.

I tried to keep my working hours to just 35 hours a week so I could still study. I’d read that I would be expected to study one to three hours for every single credit hour of my education (experts recommend not working over 25 hours a week as a student, as the work hours plus the rising costs often lead to dropout). I roomed with anyone I could find, whether it was a sister, a boyfriend or a group of friends. But among my working-class peers, I saw the same story over and over: They would get a retail gig at the mall, which would require full-time hours to make ends meet; they would start slacking at school, realize they could live okay off the money they were already making, and drop out.

I was offered assistant-manager positions at fast food jobs, jobs that would have tripled my pay to $14 an hour, which seemed like a huge amount of money at the time. Instead I took out loans that kept me working for $4.45 an hour but allowed me to attend classes and reasonably complete my homework so I could get that degree. Any semester where my expenses went up, I reduced my school hours to keep working. I ended up taking five years to graduate at the cheapest school possible so I could work, still balance out school and still make the grades.

And I still walked with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans.

This is not a sob story. It’s just reality for a lot of people. I don’t regret this. I studied journalism by choice, which has not paid well for most of the 15 years I’ve been doing it, but the key fact here is I was able to attain work in the field of my choice because I agreed to the terms by which I could be educated in that field. I’ve watched any number of colleagues peel off from journalism and attend law school or pursue other professions because they’ve had children and can no longer take the low pay and long hours most newspaper journalism required.

During periods of hardship since graduating, I’ve had to defer my loans — not default, defer, which means I paused payments but still accrued interest — for a few years total here and there. But I’ve always paid them. They have barely reduced in total, however, because I’ve paid the minimum most of the time based on a meager income, using income-driven repayment plans to keep up with them, while barely making a dent in them as they accrue interest. I’ve never been eligible for a reduction or clean-slate wipe of my loans.

So when I hear that people with student debt are greedy and irresponsible for coveting a big-ticket university degree they couldn’t afford, I wonder what statistics we’re looking at, and whose stories we believe to be representative. And I wonder how we got the idea that there are “cheap” schools that will hand you a degree with no debt — schools people like me ought to be choosing instead, so we’re not punished for trying to rise above our station in life.

It’s true that students borrow more money to attend private nonprofits and private for-profit schools, but attending a public school isn’t a get-out-of-debt-free card, either. Data from 2014 show that 66 percent of students who attended public schools are still in debt from student loans, while 75 percent of private nonprofit students and 88 percent of students from private, for-profit colleges have them. Still, 66 percent is a lot of people, and the debt for kids who attended the “cheaper” schools still went up by 25 percent between 2008 and 2012.

Millennials are hit the hardest. Some 75 percent of them are in debt, and the big reason is credit cards, but second is student loan debt. When we say that student loan debt is currently about $1.5 trillion, we are talking about 44 million borrowers, and we are only talking about the student loans themselves. Not the credit card debt they also may have undertaken to cover other costs associated with getting an education. The average student loan debt carried is nearly $40,000.

The only way to get out of this debt is by dying. It’s not wiped by bankruptcy, unemployment or regret. They’re hard to pay down because of the rising cost of college and living expenses and wages not keeping up with inflation. But, as GQ‘s Pavelski demonstrated, debt is widely seen as a personal choice — even by people whose debt was wiped away by, literally, “a graduation present.”

Pavelski has since walked back his position, but he’s not alone in what he wrote. In response to Warren, many people griped more explicitly about the lucky ones who’d benefit. These formerly debt-saddled graduates may have opted out of a pricey college and paid off their loans, so why should anyone get a break who didn’t? “Elizabeth Warren’s plan to cancel student loan debt would be a slap in the face to all those who struggled to pay off their loans,” wrote conservative rag the Washington Examiner.

To make another thing clear, my story is not even close to what students of color face. Black students and Hispanic students have the most student loan debt, at the highest interest rate, and are more likely to default than any other groups. They are more likely to earn less and have less family resources to help pay off that debt. They will face higher unemployment for longer periods too, making timely repayment even more difficult.

Don’t get me wrong, I am pissed about my debt. But not because I don’t want people to have their debt eradicated if I can’t. I’m pissed because we continue to find personal fault with people who are in a system stacked against them rather than focus on the fault with the system.

That said, some research has supported Warren’s plan as a corrective for the racial wealth gap. But most importantly, bootstrappers who think no personal sacrifices have been made for those with student debt aren’t taking into account how the same people don’t own homes and have no savings because they’ve made their student debt repayment a priority, or how the inability to pay those loans has cost them other basics of stability — things those with no student loan debt take for granted.

Not attending school at all would keep promising low-income students like me in the same place. For us, trying to pull ourselves up even slightly above water still means paying the piper, one way or another. People without means have always had to jump through enormous hoops and undertake enormous burdens to demonstrate we’re deserving of the lowest levels of society’s richest rewards. The sad fact is, even after doing so, we’re just reminded that our crime was always not having enough in the first place.