Out of the Country

The cost of higher education in the United States is utterly iniquitous.

As I discussed in the post Barbie Shoes (November 13, 2019), I’ve always enjoyed reading personal essays on-line. Although the Lifestyle section that once collected the best of such compositions has long since vanished, I still discover personal essays here and there, reading them with as much pleasure and interest—or disdain–as ever.

A year or so ago I stumbled across one such essay discussing the problems inherent in student loans. The author, a young woman who had endured years of financial problems when her loans were called in prematurely, described in detail her path to fiscal ruin.

I felt genuine compassion for her plight. The cost of higher education in the United States is utterly iniquitous. Even with scholarships, students (and sometimes their parents) are subjected to crippling financial burdens from the loans needed to finance a college education. At higher levels of education, Master’s degrees and PhDs, scholarships are not even available. The costs are simply insupportable.

As the young woman pointed out, too, there are no financial advisors available to these very young (usually, 17- and 18-year-old) borrowers. Short of a wise family member, there is no one to say to them, “Is the return you’re going to get on this investment truly worth it? Do you know how many years—years when you will be wanting, perhaps, to marry, start a family, buy a home—how many of those years will be spent simply repaying these loans?”

So I read her essay in a state of empathy. She wrote of having achieved her goal of acceptance at the college of her dreams, and starting her educational journey there, only to experience difficulties. As a young Black woman in a mostly-White campus, she mentioned enduring frequent microaggressions that left her emotionally depleted. I couldn’t really imagine how that would feel, but I had once endured relentless, vicious bullying at a new school as a teenager; while not truly analogous, I felt that experience at least gave me a slight basis for commiseration. I’d also witnessed the difficult adjustment experienced by several young people of my acquaintance to campus life. Being subjected to racist remarks would undoubtedly compound the usual adjustment difficulties.

The young woman finally experienced what she described as a mental health crisis, one severe enough that she dropped out of college. Again, I commiserated. I’d endured multiple mental health crises in my life, stumbling through the first one, complete with suicidal ideation, when I was barely 14. The experience was unspeakably dreadful. I was sorry that she capitulated, but I acknowledged her misery.

Dropping out, though, resulted in her student loans being immediately called in. Payments were due. Now she carried a financial liability, while ill-equipped to find a job at a salary high enough to keep up with the payments. She was well and truly caught in the net of student loan hell.

So she defaulted—and began a years-long process of legal woes as she tried to manage the fiscal blows to her credit and future.

But it was at this point in her essay that I encountered the sentence which led me to question everything the young woman had written to this point: She stated that she missed a court date for a hearing on her debt due to the fact that she was out of the country.

Wait. What?

Out of the country? Why? For work? I reread the sentence; it specifically did not say, “for work”. Out of the country. Why? Was this trip a gift? A honeymoon? Did she need to get to someone who was ill, even dying? Again, things not said. And when? Court dates are generally set fairly far in advance; how is it she was unaware of the schedule? And where? Canada or Mexico? Did she simply drive across a nearby border? Or did she fly somewhere? Take a cruise? Never having been able to afford such travel myself, I was of the notion that international plane fare or cruise packages were expensive. Even passports weren’t cheap. Was she staying with someone for free, with many meals provided–or using hotels, paying car rental, eating restaurant meals? Student loan payments in default, a salary that purportedly didn’t cover making those self-same loan payments, but she could afford a trip to another country? Why wasn’t the probably-not-inconsiderable sum for this little jaunt spent on payments toward her legally-acquired loans?

I stumbled through the rest of her essay–complaints about the court system, excessive loan payments, and “rigged” financial systems–in a very different frame of mind.

Personal responsibility. Accountability. Determination. The determination that might have declared, “I don’t care what those racist fools throw at me, by God, I’ll show them! They’re not going to keep me from my education!” The sort of responsibility that, in my own circumstances, kept me slogging away in demeaning employment situations, enduring sexual harassment and gender pay gaps, in order to support my child, no matter what the cost to my mental well-being. The personal responsibility and strength of character to be totally accountable for one’s own decisions and behavior.

My compassion evaporating, I reread the young woman’s entire essay with a very different eye.

I still feel that the cost of a college education in the U.S. is iniquitous. Student loans are a terrible form of usury.

But Ms. Out-of-the-Country definitely contributed to her own problems.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Barbie Shoes” as mentioned above, which you can find in the Archives from November 13, 2019.