If she had made $4,000 less that year, I’d have qualified to go to college for free.
That’s what the financial aid representative from The College of New Jersey told my mother over the phone. The income cutoff for the work-study program was just $4,000 less than she made each year. It was June 2013 and I was preparing to begin my freshman year that fall.
“Can I just pay you $4,000 then?” my mom asked. She didn’t have that kind of money, but said she could sell things or ask extended family members to borrow it. But in the world of financial aid and student loans, it doesn’t work that way. There has to be a line drawn somewhere, and I was just over the line.
I wasn’t worried, though. I knew I’d get a substantial sum of financial aid. After all, I had been a straight-A student my entire life. My parents were divorced and I lived with my mother and brother in a small apartment, where I had shared bunk beds and a bedroom with my mom for nearly 10 years.
My family couldn’t afford to buy me a car, let alone afford the cost of car insurance for me, so I couldn’t even drive anyone else’s car. We didn’t have iPhones or any of the latest electronics. We didn’t have money to go on vacation, let alone out to dinner.
It had been tough to grow up in a wealthy town without so many of the luxuries that the students around me so freely enjoyed, but I knew it would pay off when I got the financial support I needed in college.
I got the email a few weeks later that notified me of my financial aid award from The College of New Jersey. It comprised one Federal PELL Grant worth $4,422 and the NJ Tuition Aid Grant worth $1,995. In total, I received $6,417. That means the additional $23,350 I owed needed to be taken out in student loans.
Ultimately, I wasn’t wealthy enough to afford college on my own, but not poor enough to get the help I needed.
I was devastated. I was a great student in a low-income, single-parent household. I was sure I’d get more help. But I desperately wanted to go to college, so I was willing to take on the burden of student loan debt.
Then came the hunt for a cosigner.
With one parent still financially recovering from a bankruptcy, the other deep in credit card debt and one pair of grandparents taking out loans themselves to move across the country, they weren’t solid candidates to cosign for my student loans.
Stephanie, a representative from education funding provider Sallie Mae who did not wish to have her full name disclosed, answered some questions I had about the likelihood of a student to be approved for a loan, sans a cosigner.
“While it is a case-by-case basis,” she said, “in my experience, most students applying for a loan will need a cosigner in order to get that loan approved.”
Stephanie went on to explain that because most students haven’t established a good credit score, Sallie Mae has nothing to base the approval on if the student submits a solo application. That’s why a cosigner is so important. But what if you don’t have a cosigner?
“Well… try to get one,” Stephanie said.
It was a stressful summer trying to figure it out, but luckily, my other grandparents received credit approval and I was able to take out loans in my own name to attend The College of New Jersey. I thought about other students like me — those who were just over the line — who didn’t have anyone that could cosign for them. I wondered what happens to them.
This arduous process of applying for student loans is something I would have to repeat three more times during my college career.
All the money I had made from the jobs I worked in high school — as a barista, a cashier, a tutor, a medical secretary and a babysitter — didn’t even cover the cost of all of my books for my first semester.
Between classes, I worked as a clerk in the College’s Office of Admissions. I worked at the College’s student-run newspaper every semester, eventually rising to serve as editor-in-chief. I completed three paid, full-time internships each summer and freelanced during that entire time. I overloaded my class schedule and took extra credits one year so I had more time to work the following year. I opened a print shop on my website and started selling my original photos and artwork.
Still, I could barely afford the cost of books each semester.
Older family members couldn’t seem to understand why I was having such a hard time. They pointed to themselves as examples of folks who had paid their own way through school, who worked full-time while somehow simultaneously attending school full-time and graduating without owing a penny.
Even if their stories are true, the world today is very different from the world in which they grew up. According to the Department of Education, the average price to attend a four-year college in 1980 was $9,438. In 2015, that number was $23,872. That’s nearly three times as expensive, and even more so if one considers that the average person’s income has not increased as steeply.
Today, I owe Sallie Mae $86,561.35. I owe the federal government $32,927. That total — $119,488.35 — grows each month with interest. It’s a debt I don’t see myself ever being able to repay.
Based on the amount I owe and my interest rate, Sallie Mae suggests my minimum payment should be $1,079.93. My options for deferment and forbearance are already up, just a year and three months after graduation.
When I don’t have enough money in my bank account to make my minimum payment, my loans go into default. The unrelenting phone calls and emails begin. It’s stressful and embarrassing.
My brother just applied for loans for his senior year at The College of New Jersey. Somehow, he didn’t receive a single dollar of grant money. The full cost of this year’s tuition is borrowed from Sallie Mae, and one day, like me, he’ll have to pay it back.
Our story isn’t unique. It mirrors those of countless students in the U.S. who willingly throw themselves into crushing debt just to earn a college degree, something that’s necessary in order to work most jobs in this country.
On August 27, a top federal official in charge of handling complaints about student loans stepped down. He blasted the Trump administration for protecting predatory lenders at the expense of borrowers like me.
Is it disappointing to think that my struggles with America’s student loan system might just be beginning? Of course.
But is it surprising?
After all the hurdles I’ve jumped to get this far, not in the slightest.