By: Rebekah Wysocki
My friends and I — probably most people of my generation — joke that our retirement plan is death. It’s not as morbid as it sounds; but. , Still, but many of us have been so bogged down by the financial decisions that we made at the notoriously prescient age of eighteen that we’re anchored to our past through student loans, as opposed to looking to financial planning for our future retirement. I might not have been legally allowed to buy a beer at eighteen, but I was allowed to take out thousands of dollars in loans. At eighteen, I was better educated about the dangers of drinking than the dangers of loans that pursue you like a poltergeist.
While I did have some sense of the financial obligation I was making, my young, naïve teenage self, that had lived in the happy bubble of the ‘typical’ suburban household, didn’t really grasp the reality: I didn’t really know what debt could do. (I lived on a parental subsidized allowance). Plus, I had misguidedly expected after college to acquire gainful employment that would financially secure me, so paying my loans wouldn’t be a huge biggie. Enter the recession and that no biggie grew into a monster, like a cute little mogwai transforming into a gremlin: know the rules, kids.
I left NYU with a degree in Theater — please, do not make that face my parents did. Remember I was eighteen! — with no job prospects and a New York City housing market that I couldn’t afford. I struggled to put my loans into deferment. And when I say struggle, I mean struggle: My loan company fought hard for its money and had a strange view on financial hardship. Agents helpfully suggested that I try to scale back on my expenses: do you frequent coffee shops? (I didn’t); maybe you can get rid of your internet? (sir, I submit my resume and look for jobs online); have you thought about using the free internet in coffee shops? (blank stare). Somehow my inability to attain anything more than a part-time job and a couple of side gigs to pay my rent made me a failure, a loser, a delinquent. I spent my whole life being a ‘good kid’: detention never blemished my name! Now I was a shameful pariah! The student loan companies that had warmly embraced me, expressing their desire to help me attain my dream, viciously turned on me. Sure they had wanted to help me, I realized, they owned me now. I envied Faust his bargain. (Am I being dramatic? Sure. Got to put that BFA to work).
I’ve come to terms with the fact that I have loans and will for a very long time. Thankfully I don’t want kids so…that’s a plus. After years of accrued interest from my time in grad school, to fees for those months when buying frozen veggies was a luxury item, I feel like I’m paying for ten10 college educations. Now that I can actually pay, I don’t feel as much shame and anxiety about them. (Loan companies are certainly nicer now that I can scrounge together enough funds to make my monthly payments). I hope to refinance at some point for a lower interest rate, but funnily enough, my loans affect my credit score, so refinancing companies are hesitant to offer me lower rates; they’d also prefer someone who made more money. (Wouldn’t we all?) Sometimes it feels like loans are quicksand, and refinancing companies are offering branches out to the people standing on solid sand.
That’s one of the nice things about working at The Hildreth Institute: we’re hoping to catch people before they step into the trap; to get rid of the traps entirely. There’s no reason that an eighteen-year-old should have to dream smaller just because their parents have less money than someone else’s. (Even if the dream is Theater or English Lit or Astronomy or you get the picture). There’s certainly no reason that loan companies should be allowed to prey on the dreams of children with predatory practices. Victims of a corrupt system shouldn’t be the villains, but those corrupting the system should be held accountable.
Did I choose to go to NYU, knowing how much it cost? Yes. Would I do it again, knowing what I know? Nope. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say. But I think that The Hildreth Institute and its partners have a clear vision of how things should and could be.