Grace Stetson
October 30, 2019 1:38 pm

A little over a year ago today, in May 2018, I paid the federal government $51,758.29 to complete, once and for all, my student loan payments. When I hung up the phone with the loan officer and received an email receipt for the transaction, I knew it was a big moment. My friend hooted and hollered right next to me—much to the chagrin of the other people in the library—but I couldn’t yet process its true gravity.

Sure, I had calculated what my monthly loan payments would have been if I didn’t pay off the full amount right then and there, but it also felt like a punch in the gut to see all of this money I’d worked so hard to save up suddenly…gone.

This is what I had to do, and the resources I needed, to pay off my student loans in full.

Even with the privilege of not having outstanding undergraduate student loans, I still owed over $50,000 for a one-year program. Ever since I was 16, or maybe even younger, I’ve had this dream of becoming a journalist, partially thanks to  my near-constant viewings of the TODAY show and 60 Minutes. During my sophomore year of high school, my English teacher recommended that I check out our student newspaper. After stepping foot into that newsroom to write, investigate, and produce pieces that other teenagers would read, I knew I needed more.

The journalism advisor recommended that I look into Northwestern University. I reached out to a few of the professors there to learn more about their journalism school, and I was fortunate enough to also learn about their program designed for high school students to dip their feet into the university. Unfortunately, I didn’t get into that program (or maybe I didn’t even meet the deadline—I can’t remember now). But I knew in my heart that I wanted to go to that school eventually, come hell or high water.

Fast forward to June 2015, when I’m graduating from Seattle University with two Bachelor’s degrees in English Literature and Film Studies and a minor in Spanish—but no job.

I was fortunate enough to be able to move back in with my parents and work at my old summer camp job in the Bay Area, but after that summer, my only plans were going to be finding a job and saving enough money to one day go to Northwestern for their master’s program.

By the fall, I’d sent out 85 job applications while nannying for families in the Bay Area and losing my mind. I finally landed a full-time job as an administrative associate at Stanford University, and the department I would be working for was the Office for the Vice Provost for Graduate Education. It would truly be my saving grace in terms of understanding the graduate application process and how graduate school works.

Once those checks started coming in, I began to save everything and anything I could, only made possible by the privilege of living with my gracious family rent-free and not having anyone to care for but myself.

Saving everything I could meant taking 75 percent—yes, you read that correctly—out of each check and putting it directly into a savings account titled “Happy Tears.”

The job paid adequately, but still in the scope of an entry-level job, so I searched out other opportunities I could fit in around the 40-hour or even 50-hour weeks, whether that meant babysitting, dog-sitting, house-sitting, one-off jobs, etc. I also began to change my habits over time in terms of hanging out with friends—no more hours-long adventures to bars, or going out for dinner with people three times a week. No no, we’re going on a hike or volunteering, because it’s (a) free but also (b) very fun and healthy.

Over two years, I saw the amount in my “Happy Tears” account continue to grow slowly but steadily. Still, I knew that I’d need to take out student loans to afford the rest. I was very fortunate to not have outstanding undergraduate loans due to scholarships and my parents’ generosity, but that would not be the case for graduate school.

From the weekly courses (which did not help my scores) to having to buy my transcripts from my college (another bizarre fact of today’s education system) to the application fees (ha, you’re never getting those back), I began to really question how I’d be able to do this.

The graduate school application process—from the dreaded GRE to its prep courses—took a fair amount of money itself. From the weekly courses (which did not help my scores) to having to buy my transcripts from my college (another bizarre fact of today’s education system) to the application fees (ha, you’re never getting those back), I began to really question how I’d be able to do this. Northwestern was nearly $100K for one year; my second and third choices’ tuitions were not far behind that. What else could I even do to save money?

I was privileged to have a savings account that my parents had started for me as a teenager—a resource that is definitely not available to every college student or teen—and now it was a potential source for a portion of the graduate school bill not covered by loans. I began working as much overtime as possible, which my boss graciously allowed me to do within reason. I spent even less money on activities with my friends. It took a lot, in terms of both time and sanity.

Eventually, after pure panic and being waitlisted at my top three choices, I learned of my acceptance into Northwestern via a voicemail from one of the academic advisors I’d been in contact with for four years. I broke down crying in my office’s kitchen. Then I realized I had to move to Chicago from the Bay Area in a month.

Prior to the move, I found an apartment with the help of my mom’s best friend who luckily lived in Chicago and could direct me to the most affordable areas. I made sure to stay within the budget of under $750 a month. I began volunteering at the local YMCA to (a) volunteer in my new community and (b) meet people without spending money. Like all the graduate students, I got an unlimited CTA public transportation card (“free,” but really just included in the $100K tuition) and used it to get to classes, volunteering, and the gym. That’s right, as a student, you get free access to the university gym, so might as well use it.

Once in Chicago and in my master’s program, the lessons I had been perfecting over the last few years—as well as my lifelong habits after being raised by savers—continued so that I was experiencing the program and the city, but also not blowing all that I had saved.

Groceries were bought in bulk once a month, with my bill often amounting to $150 or less. Sure, I would go out with friends from the program, but would try my damnedest to keep my bill as low as possible, even if that meant not drinking. Daily coffee expenditures were not a thing—I’m a caffeine hound, but I would rather save my money by drinking the office coffee than spending upwards of $30 a week on bean juice. Everything I could save, I would.

As the year-long program neared its end, I tried to figure out my best options in terms of paying back my loans. But I had no idea what I was doing after graduation. Where was I going to live? Where was I going to work? Job offers from different newspapers around the U.S. were…well, let’s just say they were much lower salaries than what I had been expecting. Especially after spending so much on a graduate degree.

Some professors actually made me feel silly for passing on job offers like those: Why not take an internship, even if it’s unpaid? What about that fellowship in the nation’s capital at that incredibly reputable media organization, with a 40 percent chance of getting a job, after a year of working there for less than minimum wage?

Take, for instance, the position in South Carolina that I’d been offered, for $25,000 annually. How long would it take to pay back the loans I had accumulated during this program? Well, if I had calculated correctly (which I had), my loan payments would be $700 per month for the next 10 years. Making $25,000 in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. before taxes—or even in a smaller city, truly—was not going to cut it.

The fact was that after those two years of living at home rent-free, saving 75 percent of all my paychecks, working several side hustles, and not spending it all already on tuition because of the loans,  I still had a surprising amount of money in my “Happy Tears” account.

After much back and forth on my own—along with conversations with my friends and my family—I decided to take the plunge so I would never have to deal with FAFSA or MOHELA or any of those other loan service officers again. I would have no student loans to haunt me for the next decade of my life. I decided that, after getting my master’s, I would use the remaining “Happy Tears” savings to pay back the $51,758.29 loan, all at once.

Even with the privilege of not having outstanding undergraduate student loans, I still owed over $50,000 for a one-year program. A punch to the gut. As NPR reports, “Americans owe about $1.6 trillion in student loan debt. That’s about twice the current budget for the Defense Department and around 22 times the budget for the Education Department.” According to debt.org, the average student loan debt is approximately $38,000, and the number of “people over 60 with student loan debt has quadrupled in the last decade from 700,000 to 2.8 million.”

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How many people just have that type of money lying around?

It doesn’t help that most of the programs people want to attend are in expensive areas. At Stanford, my former workplace, students were given housing stipends that decreased their monthly rent, but those rents still were often in the $1,000-$1,600 range. In New York—where I was planning on heading for NYU’s program before getting Northwestern’s call—housing is similarly priced.

Earlier this year, the Stanford Daily released a long-form investigative piece on how graduate students—namely, those with J-1 visas and thus unable to work alongside other students while at the university—were able to afford…anything. The students profiled—some of whom I had worked with not long before—cited the fruit trees around campus as a sustaining food source when they were given only $200 to $300 every two weeks.

We’re not even able to support the next generation of scientists, doctors, writers, professors, teachers, and engineers with enough money for food as they attempt to complete their graduate studies.

We want so much out of this generation and future generations, asking that they achieve more and more in terms of their education and careers. But what happens when your master’s degree amounts to offers that make you scratch your head, looking at a nearly $20,000 drop in salary even though you are now potentially more qualified?

According to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics, colleges and universities in this academic year are expected to award 780,000 master’s degrees. and 182,000 doctor’s degrees. How many of those students are going to be in a similar predicament to myself—figuring out the next steps for (a) attaining a job that pays them appropriately for their advanced educational experience while also (b) dealing with the lasting effects of student loan debt?

A year later, I think even more about the impact of my student loans and how loans affect other students in similar predicaments.

More often than not, I wish I could have gone back and really researched how my master’s degree could help me in my quest to become a part of the journalism world. Sometimes I wish I could have kept saving up the money to buy something for my parents to thank them for all they’ve done.

Now, though, I think the best thing we can all do is open up the conversation about this dichotomy—wanting higher and higher education goals achieved, but not discussing the lasting financial aspects—until student loans are forgiven and everyone can attain a master’s degree, a doctoral degree, or whatever else they may desire, without fearing the cost of weekly groceries and health insurance.

I have now seen two sides of graduate school, both as an employee at a private university and as a graduate student myself. And I got off lucky by only having to pay $51,758.29. How disgusting is that?

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