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Reality Check: Dealing With Debt After Graduation

This post is written by Chloe Heintz, who pursues social justice work in Westchester County, N.Y.  She is a graduate of SUNY Purchase College and majored in Women’s Studies with a a minor in Economics.  She is a supporter of Young Invincibles. 

It’s been nearly three years since I graduated from college, which is only just enough time to start having a slow, sinking feeling about my financial situation. I suspect it would have hit me sooner, but I was coasting on the pre-packaged fantasy that I had done everything right, and things would continue on in that way ad infinitum.  I grew up in a homogeneously poor, rural part of upstate New York, where we were steeped in the notion that dreams must be earned, and nothing was guaranteed.

I received a fantastic education from a state school, due in large part to my incredible mentors there.  Because my family was not well off, I received over $7,000 in Pell Grants and qualified for a number of scholarships, state and federal aid.  To keep my debt down, I worked as a resident assistant and got a handful of part-time jobs; there were some semesters where I had four or five jobs, a full course load and research assistantships.  Ultimately, I left school with a balance that was tens of thousands of dollars less than the debt many of my peers shouldered.  Somehow that doesn’t make it less stressful.

It took two years after graduating, but I eventually gained a full-time position, and found myself catapulted into the middle class.  The reality hasn’t changed, though: I can only make my minimum loan payments, and my chest gets sick and tight when I realize my interest is growing faster than I can pay it off. In short, I owe more now than I did when I began dutifully paying over two years ago.

I began my education with the understanding that it would not grant me access to a field that would make me wealthy. I felt okay about that, because I had lived a comfortable life without it.  On the other side of my degree, I can confidently say that I’m proud of my learning experience, but there are a few things I wish I had known:

  • First, realize that you are a consumer, and therefore, schools are a business.  It is their job to sell you on an idea. Try not to be misled by the advertising and look underneath for the qualities you want in your education.
  • There are only a few fields where the name on your diploma pulls as much weight as it used to. Try to weigh whether or not that $40,000 price tag is really worth it.  My state education gave me access to some of the biggest names in my field, and it gave me perspective that a more privileged institution wouldn’t have.
  • Whether or not you are interested in finance, make it your business to understand budgeting, the basics of economic policy, and investments. Being financially independent is more difficult than just opening a savings account, and feeling ignorant can be overwhelming.
  • Know that there will be a radical change in your ideals and passions. I don’t know when it will happen for you, but it’s coming, and for me it was closely attached to being completely self-sufficient, in college and today.
Even when money is tight, I find it thrilling to look back and realize all the things I didn’t know.