Recently the Death, Sex, and Money Podcast did a 2 episode feature on student loans. I have about $70k worth of student loan debt, and my current partner has a similar amount. I managed to graduate from a private liberal arts college as an undergraduate with about $15k in student debt. I saved money by not going to school for all 4 years, and I felt like the amount of debt I graduated with was reasonable for my History and Political Science degree with a minor in Religious Studies. I was also very fortunate in that my mother paid off about half of it.
A recent graduate, I entered the job market and got a job that had nothing to do with my degree. I learned the art of administrating payroll, and by about 23 years of age, I worked myself into a position where I was comfortably making $40k per year. My loan payments were manageable, my interest rates were low, and my payment was less than $100 a month. I knew it would take me 10 years to pay it off at the rate I was going, but that seemed reasonable, no biggie.
After a series of events involving my romantic relationship and some less than tolerable practices with my current employer, I decided to pursue a Masters of Urban Regional Planning at the University of California, Irvine. In other words my name is Bonny Christine O’Neill, MURP, CPP (certified payroll professional). The year that I was going to the orientation for the MURP program, I was told that approximately 75% of students in the graduating class had job offers, and within a year of graduation most students (90%) were working in the field. I figured hey, I will leave a decent paying job, take out loans to get a degree and a higher paying job, and the higher loan payments will be totally doable.
Then the economy tanked.
As I studied for two years at UCI, I continued to do work that was not in field of Urban Planning because I felt like I needed an income, even if it was just a fourth of what I had been making prior to going back to school. Somehow in my first year of the program, I miraculously got my full tuition covered by a scholarship. I don’t know how it happened, and honestly, I don’t think that it’s supposed to happen to Masters students, but I was fortunate. My problem was that instead of taking out less loans because I had my tuition covered, I still took out a maximum of loans to pay my rent, car payment, and the other normal bills a person who used to make $40k a year has. I honestly thought that it would all come out in the wash, and when I graduated I’d make more money, get caught up, oh and did I mention, then the economy tanked.
My colleagues and I did not experience 90% job placement in the field with 12 months of graduation. I don’t know the number, but from what I understood it was much lower. Upon graduation I applied for every job in the field I saw. Even with a fresh degree, I didn’t get more than one interview. I didn’t take it very personally. I just figured other people had experience, and I did not, so I would not be the most likely person to call. During this time I also did not get a job that I did interview for and believe I was well qualified for. It’s kind of a long story, and I am trying to let it go, but it was slightly heartbreaking.
When I finally found a job as a payroll clerk at a non-profit, I took a drastic pay cut from what I was making before I went back to school. At my new job I made $14 per hour. I thought that if I liked the organization that I worked for, even if the work was boring it would be worth it. I eventually started making loan payments towards my new acquired
$60k in student loans, but since my income was pretty non-existent, so were my payments. At that job, I learned that even though I liked the organization I DID NOT LIKE MY BOSS and after a year of being treated like crap for $14 and hour, I eventually found another job. I applied for both planning jobs and payroll jobs, but the only interviews that I got were for payroll. I took a new job in payroll and at least doubled my income, which was the goal. I continued to think about community development, organization, and planning, but I also realized that payroll was a unique skill set and pretty much a guaranteed income, and I had experience, so maybe I should just go with it. I realized that maybe the timing in my life just wasn’t going to work when it came to Urban Planning.
About 7 years later, I am at my third job since graduation. During this time, my last employer paid for me to become a Certified Payroll Professional. The test was actually quite difficult, so I like to give myself a pat on the back for this one. I am a Payroll Administrator and now I make $70k per year, which sounds great but with all of my student loan and credit card debit, and the high cost of rent in Orange County, CA, it doesn’t seem like a lot at the end of a month. My loan payments are currently $350 a month, and as we speak I need to re-certify with my 2016 income, and I dread doing that because I know my payment is going to go up again. Every year when my payment goes up, I am thankful that it is because my income has increased, but I do think it to be slightly ironic that it has nothing to do with the four letters after my name.
MURP MURP MURP MURP MURP! Say it five time fast, and it might make you laugh.
When I listened to the podcast about student loans recently I thought about the decisions that I had made that were directly influenced by my and my partner’s student loans. I definitely:
- Chose to get married sooner rather than later because my ex-husband had a lot of student loans also and also a very low income. When we combined our households we had lower payments for both of our loans.
- Went back onto the job market thinking that anything and everything had to be an option for me. I wanted to use my degree, but I also needed to pay for the damage I did in those two years and the year after grad school when I was making $14 hour.
Do I regret the degree? I don’t think so. Even though I do not use my degree in my job, I do think it’s always sets my resume aside when people see that I have a Masters from a UC school. Also, grad school was amazing. I made several great friends and strengthened relationships that I had prior to grad school, spent a month living in and studying Urban Development in Barcelona, took a extended trip to Bulgaria to visit my sister in the Peace Corps, and traveled in Ireland and Scotland with my mom.
I dated my ex-husband who was getting his Masters in San Diego at the time. I mostly just enjoyed life, read lots of scholarly articles and books and thrived (somewhat) at being a student. When I graduated I thought about trying to get funding to get paid to get my PhD, but I felt burnt out on school, and like going back was essentially just going to be delaying the inevitable.
In the podcasts I heard many people talk about the shame that was associated with their student debt. I don’t feel a lot of shame for what I did. I do feel like I made some poor choices that have unfortunate impacts on my life today. I could be saving $350 a month, or paying off more credit card debt every month, but because of my choices I can’t do that.
I also heard people talking about how they felt like they got duped, but I didn’t really feel like that.
I felt like whenever I signed loan paperwork it estimated my payments, and they always seemed to me like they’d be really high. I can’t claim I didn’t understand, because I definitely did, I just didn’t imagine this is how it would all play out.
I can’t blame institutions for the bad choices I made. I however can express my disdain that the student loans I got in grad school have about an 8% interest rate, and it seems that the Drumpf is now threatening to get rid of loan forgiveness programs, which is pretty much my (and my partner’s) only hope for this debt. I think we deserve the right to make income contingent payments for 25 years and call it a day. However, that’s politics, and I don’t need to go there right now.
How have your student loans impacted you? Do you avoid making payments? Do you hide this debt from friends and family? Are you ashamed of your loans? Were your degrees worth it?