I spent my senior year of high school planning for my future. I applied to numerous colleges, hoping to get into my dream school. Looking back I’m not even sure I really knew what a dream school was. I went on campus tours with my parents, carefully selecting my home for the next four plus years. It was exciting and nerve-racking all at the same time. But, I was forgetting something extremely important that would affect my future immensely. How would I pay for college? I didn’t have the money, and my parents didn’t either. My worries were reassured when I learned about financial aid. It required my parents and I to fill out forms based on income and financial need and it would determine how much money I could “borrow” to pay back “later”. That sounds great right? Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
I learned later that financial aid is a fancy term for borrowing a shit ton of money you will never be able to repay. Well I shouldn’t say never. If your one of the lucky few who goes to college, graduates, and finds a well-paying career you may be able to pay them off in 5 to 10 years. But, unfortunately for many of us that is not the case.
My financial aid package laid out what I was getting in loans, grants, work-study etc. I thought awesome, I can go to college. I was 18. I knew nothing about money. I hadn’t even had a real job. Yet I was given thousands of dollars and expected to understand and manage those funds. Yeah right. On paper I was an adult, but I was far from it. I was a kid. A kid moving away from home for the first time. I didn’t want to think about money, let alone have to worry about paying it back. And you don’t worry about it. No one tells you to worry about it. You worry about school, grades, tests, friends, parties, and making it through the next four years. It’s all fun and games until graduation comes.
Fast-forward 6 months after graduation and you can’t find a job because that liberal arts major you picked is about as useful to big name corporations as not having a degree at all. Yeah, that’s right. You were probably told no matter what you major in, any company will hire you. At least I was. Countless times. Well that was probably the worst piece of advice any academic advisor can give you. Please do your research. If you want to major in anthropology like I did, because you have a genuine love to learn about other cultures, by all means do so, but realize that there are no jobs. You need a plan. Remember when the job market is small, the competition for available jobs increases. You have to be valuable. Find your unique qualities and use those to your advantage. (I should really listen to my own advice here). Seriously though, look at the future of your major before picking one. I didn’t have a plan. I was in my junior year of college in PANIC MODE, still undecided. I didn’t feel like I enjoyed anything enough to spend the rest of my life doing it.
My advisor reassured me, as she had done countless times before, by telling me that it didn’t matter what liberal arts major I picked, I just had to pick one and I’d get a great high paying career after college. So I picked anthropology. That was probably the worst mistake I ever made. I LOVE anthropology don’t get me wrong. I really do. But again I had no plan. I didn’t know I would probably need to go back to graduate school to even be considered for employment in that field. I took the advice of an academic advisor who gives that same advice to thousands of students. That advice crash landed me straight into a desk chair at medical office. I don’t even like medicine. I like writing. I like designing. I like learning about the world. Don’t let yourself get stuck doing something you know you weren’t meant do to. Do you really think my advisor cares what I’m doing now? Nope. If I don’t remember her name, she definitely doesn’t remember mine.
Be your own academic advisor. Do your own research. When you pick a major make sure you’ve researched the potential job market. Make sure you take the classes you need to graduate on time. You can do that on your own. You don’t need an advisor to tell you that. I will take a lot of the blame because I put my future in the hands of people who knew nothing about me. I mean come on, did I really think this lady I met with once a semester could tell me how to plan for my future? Yes. Yes I did. Why? Because that’s what I was “advised” to do. Just remember if your advisors were honest with you, they probably wouldn’t have a job. If my advisor had told me to take a semester off to “find myself”, the university would’ve been out that tuition money. That’s not good for business. Do your research; you’re going to college to educate yourself for a reason.
I got a little sidetracked on the importance of selecting your major, but do you know what happens six months after graduation? It’s time to start paying back those loans from that wonderful financial aid package you had set up for you. Let the incessant, nagging, constant letters and phone calls start rolling in. Yeah you read that right. You have just SIX short months after graduation to find a job and start repaying those loans. Bet you forgot about that. I bet that small crucial detail was placed so far in the back of your mind that you have to walk through cobwebs to get to it. Even though you might have forgotten how quickly they want their money back, they didn’t. They will remind you of it every single day if you don’t set up payment arrangements. Even on the weekends. You want to sleep in on Saturday? You better shut your phone off because at 8am they’ll call and wake you out of your peaceful slumber just to remind you your behind on a payment. They don’t care. They have no souls.
The absolute worst thing you can do when borrowing money is to borrow from a private lender (I won’t name names here, but there’s one in particular who I believe spawned from Satan himself). I repeat. DO NOT BORROW MONEY FROM A PRIVATE LENDER. I don’t care if you have to take time off school and work for a semester to save money. Trust me. I wish someone would’ve told me this at 19 when I borrowed $5,000 big ones. And you know what, it was incredibly easy. Too easy. I didn’t even need a co-signer. I filled out a form and $5,000 was deposited into my bank account. Just like that. Do you know how much money I owe now? $11,000! That’s $6,000 dollars in interest. I owe double what I borrowed (I graduated in 2010).
Private lenders want their minimum payment every month, they don’t negotiate. In my case it was $99.00. And six months after graduation, I worked in retail and as a substitute teacher. As you can probably guess, $99.00 a month was a little pricey. Well after trying to talk to them, they refused to take less because my interest rate was so high. So being stubborn I haven’t paid them a dime in four years. (Please don’t do this either, this is really bad for your credit). Well after a few months of not paying them, they send you to collections. And collection agencies are worse than loan companies if you can believe it. The calls are threatening and numerous. I’ve tried to pay $50.00 a month and each time they tell me it won’t even cover my interest per month. So in my mind I think what’s the point? I’ve had collectors tell me I would get fired from my job if I didn’t pay. It’s always in the back of my mind that I’m in debt. It’s stressful and causes so much anxiety that sometimes it’s easier to just keep pushing it aside.
Federal loans are much easier to defer due to economic hardship, a fancy word for being broke. I’ve filled out forms and have been able to defer them without penalty for a few years. It’s nice. But I still accrue interest, and I still owe the money. I remember getting my first bill for my federal loans. It was $250.00 a month. That’s what my car payment costs. It’s insane. In total, all my loan payments for a month would have been about $400.00. I know there are many people who have no trouble paying off their loans; I have friends who are already debt free. But, there are so many of us who made these mistakes. I’m just here to try and keep you from doing the same.
College isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There’s a good and a bad side. It’s okay to take a year off after high school to find yourself. Travel and go explore the world. Maybe you’ll find your calling. You don’t have to rush into college because that’s what everyone else is doing. It doesn’t make you a bad person to be undecided. I wish someone would’ve told me that.
If you’ve taken the time to read this article all the way through, I commend you. I hope you learned something. Just know that I am not writing in self-pity. I know I made mistakes. I get that. I have a good life. All the mistakes I made have made me who I am today. It’s taken me a while to figure that out. But, the world needs to know that the higher education system is flawed. It’s obvious with the amount of student loan debt this country has. Communication and proper planning is lacking in colleges and universities. You will NOT be adequately prepared for your future in college, unless you do it yourself.
Get your shit together people. It’s a long road “what ifs” if you don’t.