I Graduated From NYU And I Have No Student Loan Debt, But I Still Have Empathy For People Who Do

Getting through college debt-free is only possible if you have access to a pretty big helping of privilege.

Aug 19, 2014 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

You guys, I’m kind of a unicorn.
 
I got my undergrad degree at NYU, one of the most expensive schools in the country. I spent my college years moving around incessantly -- a year in the dorms here, two years in an apartment there, even a semester abroad in a Parisian studio. I graduated in the top 10 percent of my class, made incredible career contacts, and scored some lifelong friends. 
 
I also owe exactly zero dollars in student loans.
 
How did I pull that off? I was stupidly, ridiculously lucky. My upper-middle class parents paid for my education, and I am grateful as all hell for that every single day. I have the incredibly rare privilege of starting off my adult life without a pile of debt strapped to my back, a negative number permanently etched into my bank statements. 
 
Like I said, I’m kind of a unicorn.
 
Literally none of my friends have been as lucky as I’ve been -- even the ones who went to more economical state schools. All of them have tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, and are barely scraping by trying to make rent and their loan payments each month. 
 
And my friends aren’t alone. Of the approximately 20 million people who attend college each year in the U.S., about 60 percent of them take out loans to cover the cost. The number of Americans who are currently buried in student debt is greater than the entire population of Canada (and about 200 other countries). The amount of outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. is hovering around $1 trillion.
 
My indebted friends are strongly in the majority when it comes to their financial woes. And unlike this girl, I have a whole ton of empathy for them. 
 
In case you missed it, the article I’m talking about plays out like so -- a privileged white girl chooses to skip the traditional college experience of dorm rooms and frat parties in favor of going to a local college, living with her parents, and graduating debt-free. Awesome! 
 
The story gets significantly less awesome when, post-grad, she claims that her decision is the right decision for everyone. Anyone who chose otherwise and has a big pile of student loan debt to show for it? NO SYMPATHY FOR YOU.
 
This is super problematic. It fails to recognize the incredible privilege that getting through college debt-free requires, it naively assumes that there’s a one-size-fits-all solution to an endlessly complex problem, and it places the blame on relatively powerless individuals when it belongs on the broken mess that is our education system.
 
See, getting through college debt-free like I did, or like Jessica did, is only possible if you have access to a pretty big helping of privilege. Getting through college debt-free AND rent-free requires even more privilege.
 
To make those things happen, you’ve got to have a financially and emotionally stable family. You’ve got to have access to a family home that’s equipped with enough space and adequate facilities for everyone living in it. And it has to be located in a decent neighborhood, near a college whose degree will be worth a damn when you graduate and stick its name on your resume.
 
Finally, you’ve got to have a family who’s willing to let you live in their home, eat their groceries, and run up their utility bills instead of getting the hell out of their house and starting your independent, adult life.
 
And even if you have access to all of those things, that still doesn’t mean you or your parents will receive enough income and financial aid to cover the cost of college without going into debt. Over the last two decades, the cost of higher education has skyrocketed, while wages have stagnated and even dropped. That’s not a financial combination that most folks can swing without taking out loans.
 
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Despite these realities, Jessica says she doesn’t feel bad for her peers who are saddled with debt. I bet there are a lot of you out there who agree with her. But what are you really saying when you proudly declare your lack of empathy? 
 
You’re assuming that everyone around you has access to the same generous resources -- or you’re ignoring the fact that access to tons of money, free, safe shelter, and proximity to quality education is a privilege to begin with.
 
What about students who come from abusive or otherwise harmful homes? Or the ones who live in impoverished, unsafe neighborhoods that are neither conducive to learning nor near any quality schools? What about the students whose families are homeless? 
 
They don’t have the option of living at home while attending college to save on rent money. Do they deserve a future that’s clouded by a mountain of debt?
 
What about students whose parents have been laid off, or who are unemployed themselves? Or the ones who are buried in medical bills from a chronic illness that they or a family member suffers from? What about the students whose parents are dead?
 
They don’t have the option to live at home or depend on their parents’ tuition money either. Do they deserve the student loans they’ve been forced to take out?
 
Take my best friend from NYU, for example. Her mom passed away in 2011, making her and her two brothers orphans. There’s no family home for her to choose to stay in. No one’s left to make mortgage payments on the house, to pay the electricity bill to keep the lights on, to finance a family cellphone plan. My bestie has grappled with the possibility of homelessness more times than anyone should ever have to -- and had she chosen to stay in Ohio back when she was an incoming college freshman, there is a 100 percent chance she would have found herself on the street come junior year.
 
She also, significantly, would have found herself with no future. As an up-and-coming professional in the publishing industry, living in New York was a prerequisite to ever landing a job in her chosen field. During her time in college, my friend interned with almost every major publishing house in the city, gaining invaluable work experience and building a network of professional contacts that spans half the globe.
 
That would have been impossible to do from her hometown in Ohio. 
 
And she’ll need that job, now that she’s graduated and started making loan payments. There’s no escape from student debt -- interest rates are through the roof, filing for bankruptcy is not an option, and they can ruin your credit, putting your employability at serious risk. Not to mention, the Federal Government is actually turning a profit on them. 
 
When we talk about student loan debt, we’re talking about the people who are getting crushed beneath it. They chose to invest in themselves, in their careers, in their futures, and they’re being punished for it. And guess what? None of them had a choice.
 
If they were lucky enough to have a set of decently well-off, financially generous parents -- like Jessica and I did -- they wouldn’t be in debt. No one takes out a loan just for funsies.
 
So, stop shitting on people with student loans. They’re not the ones we should be blaming here. They’re just the victims of a broken system that makes college a prerequisite for most gainful employment, even while it is ridiculously unaffordable.
 
Instead, join Sen. Elizabeth Warren and I in urging the Federal Government to lower the interest rate on student loans. Let’s not beat each other down for making hard decisions. Let’s help each other make them a little bit easier to live with.