When I was in high school, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to go to a big party school 45 minutes from home. That was my dream. I wanted to be in their marching band. I couldn’t wait to party in the dorms, meet older boys, and do whatever I wanted without my parents knowing. I would stay up late, get good grades, and hopefully one day figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Then reality set in.
My mother wouldn’t let me go because she wanted me to live at home. Honestly, she was probably right. I wasn’t ready for college. Little did I know that staying home was the worst decision of my life.
I ended up going to a 4-year college that was only 10 minutes away from my parents’ house. I lived at home, went to college full time, and worked part time. I seemed to be doing well. My grades weren’t the best, but I wasn’t trying very hard either. I was more interested in the guy I was talking to and making sure other girls didn’t hit on him than in studying and getting good grades. I started out with a degree in economics. It wasn’t the computer science degree I wanted, but it was the closest thing I had, except for programming, which I knew I would hate. By the middle of the semester, I had some good grades, with the exception of one F. I was very confident that I could do it. However, I was convinced I wasn’t good enough, so I met with the Registrar and withdrew my studies. To this day, I don’t understand why that man didn’t push me to continue attending classes. To this day, I don’t know why I was able to withdraw from school so easily, with an entire semester of debt and books I had barely used. Why did the chancellor so easily give me a clean bill of health? At the time, I had every intention of withdrawing. However, if they had pushed me a little harder to stay in class, I would have. And I would have gotten A’s and B’s, except for one failing grade.
My parents were furious with me when they learned a few days later that I had withdrawn. I was ashamed to tell them because I knew it wasn’t the right decision, but it was too late to change my mind. After a few weeks of feeling bad and my parents being unhappy with me, my father and I decided that I would attend the local community college. At that time, this school was sort of the “13th grade.” You only went there if you didn’t get accepted to a 4-year school, or if you wanted to graduate quickly so you could get a job as soon as possible. My mother was absolutely against that idea, she wanted me to go to a four-year school and not some lame community college. Although I made a big mistake by dropping out of the first school, going to community college changed me for the better. My parents had lost their business the year before and were barely surviving. I used this to my advantage and received a lot of free government financial aid that I didn’t have to pay back. However, since the loans were not explained to me by a real person, I took as much as I could. I received a large repayment check in the middle of the semester. I didn’t need the money for the loan, but it was great to spend all that extra money. I didn’t worry about paying the money back. I knew I would have to pay it back one day. During my three years at community college, I took as much financial aid as I could and spent the repayment checks like a kid in a candy store. I graduated with an Associate’s Degree in Network Administration, a degree I am still very proud of today. In addition to that degree, I was on the Dean’s List several times and was a member of Phi Theta Kappa, an honor society. I also had several thousand dollars in student loans that I never used.
At that point, I should have dropped out of college and gotten a job. It was still acceptable to only have an associate’s degree. Most companies would hire you with that. But my parents pushed me to get my bachelor’s degree. That sounded pretty good, especially since my mother never went to college and my father only had a degree in electricity or something. I attended a private Catholic university as an online student. I had excellent grades. I always took the maximum amount of financial aid I could get, and this time I used it to pay off credit card debt I had accumulated because my then ex-boyfriend had spent all my money. I graduated from a 4-year college with a degree in business administration. I never thought I would make it to a bachelor’s degree, and I was very proud of myself, just as my parents were proud of me. At the time, I had about $50,000 in student loans. This included loans in my name as well as loans from my parents in my father’s name. Sticker shock finally caught up with me. I had student loan debt, and lots of it. I had credit card debt, an overpriced car loan, and dreams of buying my own house and moving out. I was starting to hit rock bottom. Because of the debt I had accumulated, I was miserable all the time. I dug myself such a big hole that I knew I would never get out of.
I had just gotten a job at the community college in the financial aid department. I realized how important it was to educate students about student loan debt so they wouldn’t have the same money problems I did. To this day, I work with students and tell them my horrible story. Their parents look at me in disbelief. The students sometimes listen to me. Some students don’t care about the loans. One day they will have to pay it back.
Although I regret going to college and getting my degree every day, I don’t know if I would be where I am today without it. Although my job only requires an associate’s degree, there are very few employees at my level who do not have a bachelor’s degree. Do I make enough money to pay all my household bills and student loans? No. Do I feel miserable every day of the week? Yes, I do.
If I could do it all over again, I would change a lot of things. I would have only used scholarships, not loans. If I still had an outstanding balance, I would have done a payment plan instead of taking the full amount of my loans. If I had needed to graduate, I would have worked part-time to avoid taking out loans.
What I learned from all of this is that students need to be better educated about student loans and the consequences of taking out maximum amounts when they don’t need them. My loans have affected my happiness, my ability to support myself, my ability to pay half of our mortgage and half of our house bills. I can’t have a nice car, I can’t go out and buy clothes when I’ve lost 15 pounds and everything I own is too big for me, and most of all, I can’t really enjoy my life.
My lesson to everyone else: Please, please, please take advantage of me. Use as much cash as you can and take advantage of the free federal financial aid. Believe me, a poor 25-year-old married woman who can’t afford to live the life she wants or thinks she deserves.