Student Loan Forgiveness: About That…
On August 24th, 2022, President Biden announced that folks like me would have $10,000 of their student loan debts automatically forgiven. Assuming, of course, we’ve signed up in all the right places to get the notifications and read the smallest of small print. But I digress.
This announcement is wonderful and welcome news to my deeply indebted heart. $10,000 is a LOT of money. A lot.
Here is where that leaves me: the same place I was when I first borrowed money for my master’s degree at Stony Brook University, a state school.
Yup. In 2014, just eight years ago, I chose to take out some loans to subsidize my MFA in Creative Writing and Literature so that I could have the luxury I’d never had in undergrad, that of just being a student for two entire years.
Except for summers, when I hustled side gigs. And, except for some of the semesters where I also worked a little here and there. And that one semester when I was a Teaching Assistant. And, that last semester when I was back to work full-time because I was so broke. But aside from that, I just got to be in school.
And it was wonderful. I even spent a semester on-campus living in a dorm. I’m not sure how much my young dorm suite mates enjoyed having a 50-something roomie, but I know I enjoyed it immensely.
The investment in myself was well worth it because nobody can take away the experiences or the knowledge gained in those years. I’m glad I afforded myself this gift.
Eight years on, however, I am now learning that they can take away my Social Security checks when those kick in if I’m not done paying my loans off and have fallen into default or arrears. I’m still a few years away from that predicament, but close enough that the possibility gives me pause.
With this in mind, I’ve been looking at debt forgiveness options. Doing so led me to a list of all student loans I’d ever had and made me want to stand up and bitch slap all the naysayers out there screaming about how they paid their loans off so why can people do the same today?
Here’s the thing, as an undergrad, in the 1980s, I went to a state school full-time and worked at least two jobs at any given time. I worked on campus in a work-study scheme that reduced my tuition and put a little cash in my pocket. Then I also worked at a restaurant as a hostess for minimum wage. Then I also, on top of the first two, worked as a temp because I was–and proudly am to this day–a damn fine typist. I then dropped the hostessing gig but kept the other two at varying paces throughout my undergraduate years. And, I took out loans.
In my mind, it was a massive amount, but I needed the help, and it took me years to pay them off. Not decades, but years. What my current research revealed was that my undergrad loans totaled $6000. I don’t recall what tuition was in the 80s at San Francisco State University, but I’d guess those loans held me over for several years, supplementing my own earnings while I carried 12-unit course loads, lived off campus, and paid all my own bills.
So, yeah. A four-year university degree in the 1980s cost a fraction of what a two-year graduate degree cost in the 2010s.
For my MFA, I borrowed more money, because I needed it to cover my tuition and expenses as well as my living costs.
And in the six years (2016) since my master’s degree was conferred I paid off one $5000 loan in full, then started paying away at the interest on the rest which is so much, that this $10,000 forgiveness will just get me back to paying down the principal on the remaining loans.
Read that again. This $10,000 forgiveness will just get me back to paying down the principal on the remaining loans.
When I started teaching, which I absolutely love, by the way, I was at least able to stop making payments because my annual income is so low that I qualify for poverty exemptions.
Think about that. I earned an MFA which allows me to teach at the college level, but after investing two and half years of my time and borrowing about $40,000 for the pleasure of doing so, I’m now earning at or just above the poverty line.
Something is deeply wrong with this system.
To be clear, I do not work “full-time” according to the measures of academia. I’m an adjunct and generally teach two courses a semester. That is all that I can manage because two courses a semester is a lot of work and takes a lot of time, much of which goes uncompensated. For each class, I get paid for the three or four hours a week spent directly with my students in the classroom or on Zoom. All of the preparation, organization, hand-holding, mentoring, grading, final paperwork, and general navigation of teaching life is just extra, I guess.
Because I’m an adjunct, and at the whim of scheduling, I have to get my insurance through Medicaid for which, luckily (unluckily?) I qualify. I tried to get insurance through my college but realized that if one class got canceled–like is happening this semester because enrollment is down–I’d lose my coverage.
Did I mention I’m nearing retirement age? I also have long-COVID and I’ve been living with HIV for more than 30 years. I can’t not have insurance.
I also don’t teach more because–besides trying to have a parallel writing career (please read my book! it’s on sale right now on Amazon)–I don’t want to earn too much money and then lose my Medicaid. Insurance is non-negotiable. And by too much money, I don’t mean something wild like over $50,000 a year, I mean more than $25,000 a year. It’s batshit bonkers.
So to all those thinking that forgiving $10,000 in student loan debt for those earning less than $125,000 a year is a slap in the face because you paid your loans all those years back? Well, slap yourself silly, mister. Times have changed and you need a new mirror.
I was a student in the 1980s and a student in the 2010s and it was two entirely different experiences financially.
Were they worth it? Absolutely.
Did my undergraduate degree serve me well? Yes.
Has my MFA served me well? Without a doubt.
Do I worry about my loan debt? Do I ever.
Will I figure it out? Ab-so-friggin-lutely, because I have options that many don’t, like secure housing and a safety support network of loved ones who will watch out for me in a crisis. But this is not the way it should be.
It was bad then, it is obscene now. Shame on anyone who disparages this $10,000 forgiveness scheme. And kudos to each and every student out there–past, present, or future–who opts to invest in education for themselves. May our future leaders be educated enough to fix this broken system.