schirin oeding

under a peregrine star

The Borrowers: Student Debt


For a big chunk of my childhood and teenage years I lived in a mid-sized university town in Canada. My mother taught at the university, and I spent a fair amount of time wandering around libraries, student lounges, and green spaces on campus, pretending to be a mini-student. I remember that there was a popular cafe, run by grad students, right in the middle of campus. It was an old brick house with a patio. Sometimes, I would meet my mum there, and we would have a bite to eat on the patio. One of the exterior brick walls of the cafe, abutting the patio, was covered in numbers written in chalk, many of them running into multiple-digit lengths that were beyond the comprehension of my twelve year-old math skills. I kind of admired their colourfulness. It was neat that students wrote stuff on walls. (I’ve always had a thing for graffiti.) At some point, when I was older, maybe fifteen or so, I realised what those numbers actually were. Written way up high, above the scribbled, colourful digits, were the words: Wall of Debt.

The numbers represented individual students’ debts and loans, accrued over their years as undergraduate and graduate university students. I don’t remember any exact figures from the wall, but, looking at current student debt stats, I’m sure many of them floated around, and even more above, the $20,000 mark. And that’s just Canada. In the US, undergraduates who finance their education wholly via loans can expect at least this much debt in just three or four years, let alone tacking on two or more years of graduate studies. As a young person planning to enroll in a graduate degree program next year (and excited about it), these numbers turn my stomach.

Let me take a step back, though. I’m a twenty-four year old woman without a high school diploma. I homeschooled/unschooled the last two years of high school (actually, I spent most of those years either travelling or working on biodynamic farms). I don’t have a lot of money. In 2008, I applied and was accepted to a small, private American college based on a portfolio, rather than a GED, SAT, or high school transcript. Thanks to this portfolio, I received a full scholarship. I now have a B.A.—and, more importantly, I received an absolutely superbe, enlightening four years of intensive study. And all that for the cost of room and board (which isn’t negligible, but also doesn’t add up to a $20,000-$40,000 debt). I graduated with zero debt. Most of my fellow students didn’t share this experience. During my time at college, I didn’t generally stop to consider how much money I wasn’t spending on my education; I couldn’t hang a price-tag on my experiences, no matter how many zeros I tacked onto the figure. Nevertheless, debt was real: at the beginning of every semester, most of the other students were summoned up to the financial aid office to figure out their loan and grant packages. Figures were floated by me at the dinner table. I felt lucky, and relieved. I also felt increasingly angry that my friends were being faced with enormous financial burdens that might just slow them down on their way to pursuing their dreams. Financial burdens that would follow at least some of them into their fifties and sixties. Because yes, 2.2 million Americans over sixty still owe money on their student loans.

The debate about student loans is pretty wrung out. It’s not a useless debate by any means, but the fact is that as the conversation carries on, millions of students go further and further into debt. It sucks. I’ve been slow to wake up to this reality. It’s easy to set it aside when you’re “getting a free ride.” I feel deeply thankful to my alma mater, and when the time comes that I can give back financially (more than the tiny amount I send to the annual fundraiser), I will, without a doubt. You might wonder why I say that, since all the student debt might look like the college’s fault to begin with. I think in many cases that’s true: the quality of the education isn’t on par with the cost. But I went to a school that did its best with what it had: minimal endowment, a tiny student body, and no big-name corporate sponsors. Every on-campus student was guaranteed a work-study job, and those with higher need were eligible for actual pay-checks. That’s quite a feat, for a small school, especially one that’s geographically located in the most “inconvenient” place (when it comes to finding work as a student, anyway). And have you heard about schools divesting their fossil fuel stock holdings? They did that, too, and they were the third college in the U.S. to do so. All that is something I believe in. (Though all the while I wish the college had had more scholarships, grants, and alternative funding available.)

But for now, I get to plunge into the experience of financing my graduate degree head first, with no experience, and no thick skin, whatsoever. Oftentimes, in the conversation about student debt, the example of free education in Europe is brought up. I was born in Germany, and spent part of my childhood there. I’m an EU citizen, which means that I could take advantage of free education in the old world. There are plenty of reasons why I probably won’t do that, which include that the education I am seeking just isn’t available in Europe. It’s a longish story… But back to free post-secondary education. It’s great, right? Well, I’m not sure. It’s a tough call to make, especially because I seem to be arguing against tuition. The thing is, though, that a university education isn’t right for everyone. It’s not a class thing (or, it shouldn’t be), or a judgement call on my part. I know plenty of people who were much happier, and more successful, learning outside of the university environment—in some ways, I am, too. The problem with free education is that while some people who should have access to post-secondary ed. really can’t afford it, some people can. There is value to this kind of learning, and as much as some of us would like to avoid putting a price-tag on it, there is one. It’s inevitable, since we live in an economy based on, um, yes, sadly, cold, hard, cash. And so, those who can pay, should. In my opinion, the best way for universities and colleges to handle the gap is to adopt the work-college model that is used by some schools in the U.S. There are only seven registered work-colleges in the U.S. Really? Come on, right? I know most schools offer some work-study positions, but these colleges take it to a whole new level. At some schools, like Berea College in KY, all (ALL!) students work 10-15 hours/week, and thus are able to pay off all their tuition as they study. This translates to zero, or very little, debt. I went to one of those work colleges, and while we only worked 4-8 hours/week, it was an interesting, enriching, and educational component of my time at school. Yup, working taught me stuff! I love the fact that we basically had to work while we studied. I think this is smart in an obvious kind of way. (Oh, and by the way, I had to work even though I had a scholarship. I think work should be part of everyone’s education.)

Now that I’m looking at grad programs in the U.S. and Canada, I’m saddened to see that, from the small handful that offer the degree I’m interested in, a number suggest that first year M.A. students not work. The course-load is too heavy, they write, to make time for part- or full-time work on the side. This is just wrong. The course-load should accomodate work. I’d gladly add an extra six months or a year onto my degree if it meant graduating without debt and, even better, working in my field of study and earning money while pursuing my degree. I’m not interested in an insular education that demands I detach myself from the rest of the world and live in temporary and unrealistic stasis, dependent on a fake income that will later come back to haunt me. I love learning, and I love the concentrated amalgamation of resources and experience that is a university. But I also love to work. And I don’t believe that I should experience undue stress (and pressure from faculty who believe that working students cannot focus fully on their studies) because of this. For now, I am trying to be optimistic about the process. I’m excited about the prospect of doing an M.A. (M.L.A., actually, for those who might ask), and I’m trusting that the details of financing my education will come together without too many hiccoughs.

I’d be curious to know about other people’s experiences with the big Wall of Debt. Do share, if you feel so inclined. And thanks for reading! xo

Enter at your own risk.

Enter at your own risk.


9 thoughts on “The Borrowers: Student Debt

  1. I was lucky in 1989 to graduate without debt. Tuition was a lot cheaper back then. I had a small bursary that I won in High School, and a bit of help from my grandmother, and some loans from my Mom that she decided I didn’t have to pay back when I graduated (but if she had wanted the money back, I had lived so frugally that I could have paid her then). I saved money from age 12 when I first started working as a babysitter. I always worked, I had my first “real” job at 15, and I worked as much as I could, which was not easy as there was a bit recession at the time. I can’t say I loved saving all that money, but it was expected of me in our family culture, so I did it.

    I did it by living VERY frugally, even though I lived away from home. I didn’t go out a lot, I didn’t spend much if I did, I couldn’t afford all the trips etc. that other students were taking. I think it was a good, if somewhat unconventional, experience. I learned how to be free by not being in debt. Graduating without debt was way better than all the things I “missed” because I had to live frugally, as I didn’t have the parental financial support or student loans that all my friends had. (Oh, and I don’t think I qualified for loans, either – my brothers had been turned down so I didn’t even look into it, I just made it work … but back then, with more affordable tuitions, that could be done.)

    I also saved money by buying hardly any textbooks! I look back and can’t believe I did that. I figured if we really needed to know it, it would be covered in lectures, and it was. I may be a little less well-rounded, but books back then were as insanely priced as they are now, and how would I have found time to do all that reading anyway?

    I feel bad for today’s graduates. However, I also feel that jobs today call for WAY too many credentials, and this is part of the problem. We need to be able to move laterally more easily without going back to school, leaving the workforce and racking up yet another unnecessary pile of debt. Canada has some good co-op programs that really help.

    • Thank you so much for sharing, Nancy. I do envy you for the lower tuition rates you got to enjoy! I was definitely on the fence about grad school for a long time. Right now, the big reason why I am interested is because I think, if I find a program that is a good fit, I will be able to use the time to really develop my ideas and delve deeply into specific research. I have a pretty clear idea of what I’d like to do, post-grad, and the opportunity to study and immerse myself in something I’m deeply interested in will be immensely helpful. I’m looking at a few different programs, some three years, some ten months. The ten month option would make it impossible to work. So, I’d start put poor, end up poorer, but at least it wouldn’t tie me down for three years. I’m kind of champing at the bit to get started, and yet I know I have a lot still to learn. What I dread is graduating with a bunch of debt, and having to focus on that, rather than on doing what I went to grad school to do in the first place. It’s kind of a double edged sword…

  2. Very well said, Schirin. My ears perk up whenever I hear a news item about college debt. The most recent one I heard on NPR interviewed young people who felt they could not afford to get married or start a family because of student loans! We have one daughter who just graduated and has no debt because of a scholarship and help from family with room and board. Our other daughter will graduate with some debt, but not as high as other numbers I hear, plus the career she has chosen will pretty much guarantee a decent-paying job. Not long ago I told them that it is really a “gift” that they are able to graduate with little or no debt. I feel fortunate, but at the same time very frustrated with the whole situation. And if one, or both, decide to pursue further education, well we’ll see how that goes. Good luck, Schirin. I wish you all the best with your future studies!

    • Thanks, Petra! Yes, I’d agree, graduating without debt is a huge gift. But at the same time, it really shouldn’t be. I think grad schools especially should WANT students with specific research interests, and should make it possible for them to study without debt, no matter what their financial needs may be. Many schools try… but there are so many factors involved (as you know!). Congrats on your daughter’s graduation, too!! 🙂

  3. AS far as I am concern student loan debt like all other debt sadly it has become the norm like having a mortgage payment. My feelings on schooling has changed, simply because of the economy and the prospect of obtaining a job after you graduate from college with a min of a 4 year degree. In fact according to Daily Kos, ” Graduates in the class of 2013 on average are likely to be earning less 10 or 15 years from now than they would have had they received their diploma when the economy was healthy. ” One of the many reasons I will be pushing for my daughter to go to a tech or trade school instead of traditional education like that of a state university. You have to be able to pay these loans back and if the projected income for the future is grim that should be taken into consideration. Great post and interesting subject, lookinf forward to more.


    • Thanks for reading and commenting! I still have hope that debt won’t continue to be the norm for students (I’d say it already is the norm, sadly…). I can see that the education system needs an overhaul, and I think young people shouldn’t feel so hedged in by the apparent guarantee of “success” that a graduate degree brings them. In my case, I know pretty clearly what I want to get out of grad school, and so I have very little doubt that it’s the right choice for me. Now everything just needs to come together! Thanks for sharing the link. 🙂

  4. First of all, such a good photo & caption for this topic- nice choice 🙂
    I’m going to a community college right now for my nursing degree, out of total necessity (plus it’s a short drive!). The fear of debt and hearing about all my peers struggling to come out of it is a large part of why I stayed away from college for so long. I love that you started this conversation- more people need to be talking about how student loans just hang over people’s heads for the majority of their lives, and for what? Don’t half of graduates not even use their degrees? Something crazy like that.
    But you are so lucky! And so is everyone else who studies their passion without money being an issue (until, of course, you consider grad school).
    (P.S. I love reading your blog and getting to know you better 🙂

  5. Pingback: Let the beauty we love be what we do | schirin oeding

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