You may have seen the headlines about student debt being crazy high nationally. As of June 2010, student debt is higher than credit card debt. I’m not sure why it’s okay for credit card debt to be high, and not student loans, but economic pundits tell us this shift does not bode well. I should know, I’m part of the reason it’s so high. I have a sh*t ton of student debt. Some is from my undergraduate degree, but most of it is from my doctoral program.

As of this month, the only other debt I have is a Visa card. It’s higher than I want and the interest is a PITA, but I feel like that debt is manageable. Or it would be if I wasn’t paying *mumble mumble* dollars towards my student loans every month. This post is going to sound like I’m just complaining about my student debt. I am. But I want to pay my debts. “We are our deeds.” I firmly believe that, and I try to live it daily. I always pay my bills before anything else, sometimes to my own detriment.

The Long and  Winding Road (aka, The story of my education) (aka, 18 years later, I haz Ph.D.)

When I first started college (which was a LONG time ago), my dad paid the bill. I was at a private university studying music. Then my parents split up. My dad took his financial support with him when he left. So a year after starting undergrad, I transferred to a community college to attend part-time and started paying my own way. At first, I got a full-time job and paid out of pocket, but that was slow going. Then I started participating in local pageants that were part of Miss Florida (and Miss America), which is a scholarship organization. I never won (*sniff sniff*), but I always placed. That paid for the rest of my community college education. I even got to attend full-time my last year there.

Then Hurricane Andrew hit, and suddenly school cost more because my family moved away. I had to start paying rent and food on my own, like a grown up. When I transferred to a university, I worked part-time as a student employee, and I worked on weekends at a tourist attraction. But that wasn’t enough, so I started taking out student loans. Never once was I offered advising after my first semester. Not from my department, not from my college, not from my university.

Eight years after I started in music, I finally graduated with a Bachelor’s in Social Science. I moved to a different state to join my family and got a full-time job. I was with my family again, so I could’ve started paying my student debt, but I never heard from any of my debtors. Probably because they didn’t know where I was. Probably because I didn’t tell them. Aside from telling my alumnus where I was moving, there was no information that told me how to contact my debtors or even that I needed to. I just assumed they’d get my forwarding address if they mailed me something.

Master’s. It didn’t take me long to figure out that my undergraduate degree helped me become a well-rounded person and thinker — but it didn’t really provide marketable skills. If I wanted to succeed in my field, I had to keep investing in my education. I didn’t mind. I enjoyed learning, and I was good a being a student. My master’s was a great education experience. Well, academically the university I attended was meh. But financially, they were awesome. As a student employee, I was not charged tuition or fees. And I got a stipend! It was meager, but enough to pay my car note, buy gas, and have a little fun. I took the odd part-time or temporary work, too, to stay afloat. I was with my family, so my overheard was still low. My undergraduate debtors found me when I entered my MA program, but since I was enrolled, my loans were deferred. I was in and out in 2.5 years with no additional debt.

Ph.D. I moved to Austin for my doctoral program at the University of Texas. I was determined to put myself in a situation where I would never be unemployed, and where I would never be totally financially dependent on another person. The university was academically awesome, but financially – it was crap. They charged me in-state tuition because I was a student employee and they paid me a stipend; I am grateful for that. But unlike the second-tier research university where I got my master’s, this first-tier university charged me full tuition and fees.

This was the first time I remember getting an orientation on financial aid. That orientation was basically a short film that said, “if you throw a kegger with your student loans, we won’t give you any more money, and you’ll still have to pay them back.” There wasn’t anything relevant like, “If you take out XX amount for 8 semesters (4 years), you will owe XX amount after interest and it will take you XX years to pay it off with a minimum payment of $$.” That would’ve been a real eye opener for me. It also would’ve helped if someone had thoroughly explained subsidized (government pays interest) versus unsubsidized loans (you pay interest). Not that I had a choice but to take out loans, but I might’ve taken extra steps to keep my expenses down by getting a roommate, or living further away from campus, or taking a weekend job. I applied for support in my department whenever I could. I got a few travel grants, but word on the street was that I wasn’t considered scholarship material because I wasn’t interested in entering academia (even though my career choice to enter research / government was considered a good one.)

I graduated with my Ph.D. 15 semesters after I started (13 full-time, 2 part-time). Why did I take so long? I definitely took some hours I didn’t need, partly because I didn’t start on the path I should have, and partly because I was trying to load my course work with classes where I would learn marketable skills. Never once was I offered advising after my first semester. Not from my department, not from my college, not from my university. I had a mentor, and he was a great guy, but he was old school and didn’t think to talk to me about my coursework and the impact that would have on my earning potential (vis-à-vis, my debt load).

Crikey, that was a long story! Well, now you know why I have a sh*t ton of student debt. I still feel like getting my Ph.D. has afforded me the job opportunities, job security, and financial independence I was determined to have. But right now, I can’t really afford anything else.

I’ll talk about what’s available for people in my situation – and what isn’t – next week. What about you? Are any of you feeling the weight of your student debt?

Featured image, “Money Flower” digital art by Evan-Amos. The captures my thoughts on student loans perfectly. They are lovely when you need them, but that beauty will eventually wilt.