Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A student describes what it's like living with $88k in educational debt

Although she's not a law student, her story well describes the predicament many law students may face by incurring so much debt to pursue a legal career amidst declining job opportunities. From the Chronicle of Higher Ed:

[A] 35-year-old Hunter College graduate student named Monica Johnson woke up with debt on her mind. She's always thinking about student debt: the $88,000 she racked up between college and graduate school, and the legions of Americans whose unpaid student loans now total close to $1-trillion, twice the amount owed five years ago, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Student-loan debt now exceeds credit-card debt in the United States, with full-time undergraduates borrowing an average of $4,963 in 2010, according to the College Board.

Most students do not pay the full cost of college, but more and more are taking out loans. And if borrowers face severe financial problems, their student loans cannot be forgiven in bankruptcy, unlike most other forms of debt, such as gambling debts, that can. Some observers predict that student debt will be the country's next big financial crisis.

Young people like Ms. Johnson, who are starting adult life deeper in debt than students a decade ago, see themselves as part of a new generation of serfdom. Even as their debt grows, she and others say that student activism around the issue is weaker in the United States than in other countries due to a psychology of shame and guilt.

For Ms. Johnson, the experience of student debt is not just a private affair. It is an "epidemic where lenders are like crack dealers who give young people a taste for signing financial contracts for funny money in exchange for their future labor," she says. "The hope is that students become adult addicts who will never develop a connection with their personal financial and political autonomy."

Ms. Johnson, who is pursing a Master of Fine Arts degree in integrated media arts, is working on a graphic novel, to appear online, about the student-debt crisis.

. . . .

Ms. Johnson was born into a white, working-class family in Grand Rapids, Mich. Both of her parents have associate degrees in technical fields, and she is the first in her family to earn a bachelor's degree and to attend graduate school. She now lives in Dutch Kills, Long Island City, in an ethnic jumble of blue-collar workers, artists, hipsters, and students. She shares a modest two-bedroom apartment with a roommate.

Her living room is filled with furniture pieces that were purchased from Ikea and Craigslist. As she talked, she sat on an old office chair that was rescued from the garbage. Underneath a small sewing-machine station is a metal bin stuffed with cotton-yarn scraps, rolled-up vinyl, crochet needles, and other fabrics that she uses to extend the life of her clothes. Her bed is a mattress without a frame, and she can count the number of shirts and pants in her closet.

"This is a functional apartment," she says. "It's a sanctuary from what's out there."

Ms. Johnson says her parents feel horrible about her situation, but they have not been able to offer her any real advice about financing her education because they have no experience doing it themselves. "Money matters in general are not discussed very much within my family in part because there isn't much of it," she says. "Money is usually a depressing subject that we don't talk about unless it's absolutely necessary."

But she had no problem talking about how she racked up $75,000 in debt as she whips up a bowl of raisins, granola, and yogurt—the kind of food that "sticks with me so I don't have to eat much during the day." She paid a significant amount of her college tuition at San Francisco State University with grants and with her own money from a job, but she graduated in 2001 with $12,000 in loans. After college she worked in restaurants while she submitted portfolios to art galleries in Berkeley. She also held various jobs, from working on museum installations to conservation framing, but those positions did not pay well.

"People I talked to said that I needed to have an advanced degree." she says. So, like her comic character "Dorritt Little," she applied to graduate school with high hopes.

In 2006, she enrolled at the Pratt Institute, where annual tuition was $40,000. On top of the money she needed for tuition, she also took out loans to pay for books, a computer, and living expenses. After spending a year at Pratt, Ms. Johnson left because the program was not giving her the skills she felt she needed to be competitive.

When she enrolled at Hunter College, she took out another $4,000 in loans for tuition. Her debt totaled as much as $88,000. Six months ago she started paying it back. "I have been living in a way that has allowed me to pay back almost $13,000 over the last six months," she said.

That means eating lots of peanut-butter sandwiches. She splits the $1,600 rent and utilities with her roommate and works full time at the Alliance For Young Artists and Writers in SoHo. If she gets any kind of gift money or extra income, she immediately turns it over to her lenders. She pays more than the minimum balances due on her loans and uses cash instead of credit cards. On average, she tries to pay $300 a week toward her debt even though the loans are still deferred while she's at Hunter. But because her loans are not subsidized, they are still accumulating interest.

You can continue reading here.

(jbl).

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