Saturday, September 26, 2020

Column: College debt and the real cost of student loans

November 21, 2019
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As a first-generation college student, loans have always been the determining factor between living a less stressful life and one that is plagued with uncertainty. 

Currently, I am $23,000 in student debt and it was not an easy trek to start.

My first semester at Michigan State, I only qualified for $3,750 in aid through a grant and a federal direct unsubsidized loan. After only just being accepted into college and then finding out that I had to come up with more than $11,000 for one semester, it was heartbreaking. 

I felt lost on what to do next. I was excited and hopeful about attending Michigan State University, but I was scared that I might need to drop out and go back to community college for the smaller price tag. I finally had the opportunity to pursue education in hope of a better future, but it felt so far away. 

The gap continues to grow. Public four-year, in-state tuition should be more affordable. Tuition prices are rising, but aid assistance is not. I wish going into my college career, I had help of some sort geared toward low-income or first-generation students.

As a first-generation student, I had no idea when funds had to be accounted for to attend the university, since every college bills students differently.

I had already signed up for on-campus housing at that point, and was scared of how large the cancellation fees were.

Throughout that time, I kept in contact with a family member who works in financial aid for all of my unanswered questions. But I was still left with university-specific questions. 

I made up my mind that I was going to find a way to pay to attend, no matter what. The only option I had, and still have, was to take out additional loans.

The only reason I’m able to attend MSU is because of a Parent PLUS Loan, a federal student loan available to undergraduate students’ parents to help pay for educational expenses. Students who take out these loans shouldn’t have to rely on their families’ livelihood to finance their futures. 

There is some guilt associated with the fact that I have to include my parent in my finances in the first place (but especially after graduation, since I view it as my responsibility to pay it off).

The total average debt after graduation for MSU, according to the U.S. Department of Education, is $25,200 for undergraduate borrowers who complete college, which doesn’t take into account those who have private loans or Parent PLUS loans. 

I have come to terms with the fact that I will graduate from college with a substantially larger figure of debt than most, but I know I’m not the only one.

I was balancing three jobs to make ends meet my sophomore year. Working long hours and then returning to my dorm room to start on assignments felt impossible at times. This feeling of being burnt-out is a reality for all students. In those cases, some things have to give. For me, often times I ended up dedicating less time to socializing and studying to keep my priorities in check. Closing off yourself from experiencing college is damaging especially for underclassmen who might only experience traditional campus life their freshman year.

Balancing finances and personal life prepares us for real life. My advice is to know that a little extra work to pay off student loans goes a long way in the end, and sometimes that’s the best you can do. 

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