A couple of years ago I was sitting on a bench in Mendocino, California, a little town about an hour up the coast that I sometimes visit when I need to think things over. Mendocino is perched above the Pacific, and at the edge of town - which is, truth be told, only about two blocks from the center of town - the streets give way to a series of paths that meander around windy bluffs and tide pools and skirt the rocky places where the water meets the land.
I was sitting on a bench overlooking the sea, eating a chicken sandwich. I was also wearing a Harvard t-shirt. I didn’t go to Harvard, but my cousin did and she had recently given me the shirt for Christmas.
A man, walking leisurely by, glanced at me as he passed and inclined his head. He walked a few more steps, but then wheeled completely around and headed toward me. I was surprised: I had driven to the coast alone, and I didn’t know anyone in Mendocino. But the man approached nevertheless, and when he was close he stuck his hand out. He was indeterminately elderly but spry and his grip, when I took his hand, was strong.
“You know, it’s like I always say,” he said, pumping my hand with uncommon vigor. “You can always tell a Harvard man.” He looked at me, eyebrows raised, waiting for a response. But I had been mid-bite when he approached, and in all the commotion I had not yet been able to swallow the assorted bread and chicken matter, so he had to settle for being nodded and chewed at.
He fidgeted, antsy for the punchline, and after a moment his resolve failed and he leaned toward me. “Yep, you can always tell a Harvard man - but you can’t tell him very much,” he said, beaming. And with that he (finally) released my hand, gave me what he obviously felt to be an insouciant wink, and wandered off cackling to himself.
This sounds like a weird story, but this sort of thing actually happens all the time in Mendocino; it’s just that kind of place. The larger reason why the story has stuck with me was because of the man’s obvious and inescapable pride in his school: in the fifty years since he attended Yale (or wherever), he had enough school spirit left over that it still compelled him to approach total strangers and ridicule their intelligence. This struck me as deeply weird - in large part because even then, in my sophomore year at New York University, I was already starting to suspect that my relationship with my alma mater would not be so harmonious.
Cortney Munna also recently attended NYU. Like most NYU students, she was forced to take out increasingly-absurd loans to pay for her education; unlike most students, she is the focus of a recent New York Times profile. Cortney has nearly a hundred-thousand dollars in student loans and currently works as a photographer’s assistant, making about twenty bucks an hour. Although she seems to be in somewhat more difficult financial straits than I, the story of how Cortney acquired her debt is familiar:
She started college at age 17 and borrowed as much money as she could under the federal loan program. To make up the difference between her grants and work study money and the total cost of attending, her mother co-signed two private loans with Sallie Mae totaling about $20,000.
When they applied for a third loan, however, Sallie Mae rejected the application, citing Cathryn’s credit history. She had returned to college herself to finish her bachelor’s degree and was also borrowing money. N.Y.U. suggested a federal Plus loan for parents, but that would have required immediate payments, something the mother couldn’t afford. So before Cortney’s junior year, N.Y.U. recommended that she apply for a private student loan on her own with Citibank.
Over the course of the next two years, starting when she was still a teenager, she borrowed about $40,000 from Citibank without thinking much about how she would pay it back.
This is not a new story for the Times; in fact, they run these sorts of profiles reasonably often, especially around graduation. But given the current recession there does seem to be more discussion now about whether or not private schools - and the loans that almost inevitably come with them - are worth it.
Of these the most emotionally cathartic is almost certainly Meaghan O’Connell’s post “fuck you, pay me. or something”, with its wonderfully concise thesis: “NO ONE GIVES A SHIT ABOUT WHERE I WENT TO SCHOOL.”1 More damning, though, is Zac Bissonnette’s article from the Huffington Post called “Why College Is A Terrible Investment to Finance With Loans”. To wit:
There’s no collateral to sell off if you realize you over-borrowed. Students loans are just like a mortgage or car loan except that there is no asset to sell if you realize you can’t afford them.
Student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. If you default on a student loan, penalties and collection fees will stack up – and debt collectors can garnish your wages, Social Security, and tax refunds, and there is no statute of limitations on student loan collections.2
An unreliable income stream. 17- and 18-year olds are signing up for debt based on their ability to make payments from an income stream that’s at least four years away – in a career that they haven’t even decided on yet.
Add to this the fact that college tuitions have risen faster than income levels and without regard to the economic climate, and the fact that anyone thinks private school is a justifiable investment seems insane.
This is a weird thing for me to say.
The reason why it’s a weird thing for me to say is that I loved going to NYU. I met, worked with, was taught by, and befriended innumerable smart and creative people during my time there. I was seventeen when I went to the school, and if they threw me into a safe, controlled dorm environment, then they at least threw me into a safe, controlled dorm environment that felt like a genuine New York City apartment. Attending the school had a transformative effect on my personality and my way of thinking.
So I’m not saying that I regret going to NYU; I absolutely don’t. And when I start thinking about the hypotheticals - what would it have been like to go somewhere else? What would it be like to be debt-free? What kind of person would I be if I hadn’t lived like/where I did? - I just end up driving myself crazy. Those are unanswerables; they’re not even worth thinking about.
What I do wish is that someone had put things in perspective for me, back when I was sixteen or seventeen. I wish someone had said: Think about five hundred dollars. Think about what you can buy with five hundred dollars. Now imagine paying that much money, every single month, to a loan company with a silly name. Six thousand dollars a year, just gone - money that you can’t spend on food, travel, or lodging.
You will be unemployed. Your friends will be unemployed. You will not be able to afford a bed. Your grocery shopping will consist of cereal and pasta. And, yes, there will be things you want to do - opportunities you want to take - places you want to go - that you will have to give up. Getting a job that pays enough will be harder. Finding a place to live that’s affordable will be harder. Graduate school will be harder to pay for. Your debt will affect every decision you make from graduation day on, it will absolutely limit your opportunities, and there will be things you will have to sacrifice.
That’s what I wish someone had said.
It’s time to stop acting like a degree from a private university is its own reward. Because except for the Man from Mendocino, nobody gives a shit where you went school.