Students on the Road to Debt

How are university students really faring in this environment of rising costs and diminishing opportunities? How do they feel about the future?
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How are university students really faring in this environment of rising costs and diminishing opportunities? How do they feel about the future?
(Photo: Elizabeth Fladung)

(Photo: Elizabeth Fladung)

Monique, a vivacious, dark-haired graduate student, still owes $60,000 on her undergraduate education. “And that’s with being an R.A. [Resident Advisor] and getting housing free and working full-time and getting every scholarship I could,” she adds. She is a poised, ambitious, and thoughtful young person, worlds away from the bored-slacker stereotypes lampooned on TV.

Luckily, Monique is continuing her education at the University of California-Riverside’s highly regarded MFA program in creative writing, which is fully funded. “I wouldn’t have come to grad school if I’d had to pay, because I’m already in debt,” she said.

How are university students really faring in this environment of rising costs and diminishing opportunities? How do they feel about the future?

We had coffee with a small group of them, including Monique, after the U.C. Riverside Writers’ Week reading one Wednesday. We repaired from the Highlander Union Building—the “HUB”—to the nearby Coffee Bean for our talk (Just a small aside: A corporate chain coffeeshop has no business fleecing college students. Can’t they wait at least until these kids get out of school?)

“I know that I’ll spend years paying off the debt I’m accumulating now—it’s like an invisible weight over my head. I don’t really care where I wind up working. My philosophy is that I will go see where life takes me, and be happy where I end up.”

I was shocked to find that even though she’s still in school, Monique still has to make minimal payments on her undergraduate loans.

“I nanny, and I’m also a reader on campus,” she explained. “I grade papers for undergrads. I do whatever I can. I’m living at home, too. I like, have to.”

Vicente, a Latino English major sporting a very mod handlebar-like mustache, is an undocumented student, and therefore can’t qualify for many loans. “Thank god, I did qualify for one of the grants,” he said. “But my wife, though ... she goes to UCLA, and she’s like 30 grand in.”

What do you want to do with English? I asked him.

“I want to teach. High school English.” I can already imagine this confident, lively guy leading a classroom. He’s going to be so great at it.

Marisa is a third-year creative writing major with soft, gentle looks, long hair, and a childlike mien that belies her strong, agile mind. “I know that I’ll spend years paying off the debt I’m accumulating now—it’s like an invisible weight over my head,” she said. She hopes to do freelance writing, taking other jobs if she needs them. “I don’t really care where I wind up working. My philosophy is that I will go see where life takes me, and be happy where I end up.”

Cool and thoughtful Esteban is a linguistics major, about to finish his B.A. and looking to continue to graduate school.

“I am a little worried about debt,” he confessed. “I’m talking to a lot of my professors and they’re still working on their Ph.D.s and they’re still dealing with student debt.” (Then he showed me the textbook he’s working from now, which cost $160. Who is making this kid pay $160 for a linguistics textbook, and how does that person sleep at night?)

I asked the group: How do you think it will be for your own children, someday?

“I’m afraid of how much it’s going to cost when it’s their turn,” Marisa ventured shyly. “I want to be an English teacher? How do you save up for that?”

“We’ll still be paying off our own loans,” said Esteban.

Earlier that day a teacher had told a lecture hall full of 22-year-olds that when she’d been young, a degree would more or less ensure you a job. “And now that’s not true, it’s no guarantee of a good job. And then, that degree costs so much more to get.”

So who among your friends is making the most, I asked. Is anybody doing super great?

“The accountants,” said Monique. “I have a group of friends who are in accounting and they all got jobs right away, and they’re all doing really well.”

Though they’re not happy, she added quickly. “They all hate their jobs, they all work 12-hour days ... but they make a lot of money.”

But I don’t mean only about making money—what about fulfillment?

“I worked in marketing for two years after undergrad,” Monique replied, “and even though I made decent money I wasn’t happy in my life.... I felt like I wasn’t doing anything to fulfill anyone other than my boss and my boss’s company, you know? I didn’t like that feeling. I wanted to do something good, and feel good about it.”

Esteban echoed these sentiments.

“I don’t plan on making a living from writing novels,” he said. “My major is linguistics because I love languages, and I love studying them. But also because it feels safer. I can get a job as a translator, as an interpreter, or I can teach languages. But my dream is to be the next Tolkien, or the next J.K. Rowling. Write novels for a living. I don’t need to be rich, but I would like to be able to write. But there’s just that fear: I just can’t do this, because it’s not going to make money. It’s very much a problem. Because if school’s going to cost me so much, I’m going to need something that’s at least going to help me break even at a certain point.”

Marisa said: “As a society we value the big house, a yard—‘I’m going to have a good life for myself that’s big.’ That’s bigger, that’s more than we might really need. My goal in life is to have a house that’s the size of a parking space.”

“A tiny house?” I asked. This kid can’t be more than 20 or so.

“I’m into tiny houses too,” said Monique.

Marisa: “A tiny house, that is my dream, I am going to build a tiny house and live in it.”

“I’d much rather live in a small house, but be happy with what I’m doing, honestly,” said Monique, and Marisa agreed: “We don’t need our parents’ life.”

This post originally appeared on Capital & Main, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “Students on the Road to Debt." It is part of a month-long series exploring how economic inequality is transforming California, and what can be done to rebuild our vanishing middle class.

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