Her name strikes a chord of regret in the hearts of millions of folks who were, once upon a time, college students. Some finished, some didn’t. But many of us must pay the great white beast known simply as Sallie Mae. I hate that heifer. If I catch her out on the streets, I’m blacking both her eyes and chipping two of her teeth.
Since I’m the first person in my family to have the privilege of going to college, there was no background knowledge on the mystifying world of post-secondary financial aid. Fortunately, a one-two punch of excellent grades and fairly decent SAT scores earned me a full ride to, among others, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the first HBCU in the country and an institution that had turned out some pretty impressive luminaries (excuse me for a moment: LU!!! Lincoln pride!!! Okay, carry on.) For my first two years of school, I didn’t have to worry about paying for too much of anything, save a super expensive English book that put me over the amount that my voucher was worth. Then mysteriously, the scholarship was no longer being offered and I was forced to throw together my own financial aid package, a conglomerate of grants, smaller scholarships and those dreaded, damned, “what-did-I-even-learn-that-was-worth-this-much-money?” student loans.
I don’t even want to tell you how much I owe. Actually, I couldn’t even if I really wanted to because I literally avert my eyes from the grand totals whenever I’m on the website. (It’s the visual equivalent of covering my ears and going “lalalalala” when someone’s saying something I don’t want to hear.) Childish? Maybe. Irresponsible? Perhaps. But I tell you as sure as I’m sitting here on this sofa at 7 AM with unbrushed teeth and a silk scarf on my head that if I knew the depth and extent of my debt to that corporate extortionist (and the federal government, because I owe them a few bucks, too), they’d have to cart me away and spoon-feed me Jell-O in a padded white room.
I shouldn’t single Sallie Mae out, though they have been accused of redlining and overcharging Black and Latino borrowers. I hate all student loans from all originators and lending institutions for all people everywhere trying to make a decent living without the ghost of academic past knocking at their door. I hate the concept that you go to school because society and your family and the working world is forever emphasizing the importance of being educated but when you get that golden sheet of paper and all the knowledge that goes along with it, you have to spend the next 10, 15, heck, maybe even 30 or 40 years of your life paying for it. It doesn’t matter if you never do anything with the major you specialized in or the degree you worked so hard to earn. They ain’t splittin’ hairs if you make $17,000 a year as a parking attendant or $160,000 a year as a litigator. They’re going to come for you. And even if you die, your family is still on the hook for the education you took with you to the grave.
There’s been ongoing and widespread outrage about predatory lending from mortgage companies but based on the horror stories I hear from friends and friends of friends and other folks I run into in my random travels, student loans are just about the worst form of predatory lending anytime, anywhere, anyplace. (The credit cards they send you and your jobless college student tail during your first 90 days on campus are THE worst, but that rant is fodder for another article.) What’s ironic is most of the time, you don’t even have any credit but you’re permitted to dig yourself into debt for the sake of your education. You’re what, 18, 20 years old? You’re living away from home for the first time, and the parents and adult family members you’re so hell bent on asserting your independence from are umpteen miles away. You go to register for classes and—gasp—the financial aid office almost gleefully reports that you have a balance and that in order to stay on campus and attend class, you need X amount of dollars to clear up your bill. Panic sets in like the side effects of a bad Mexican dish. Even if you call home and, through a series of heaving, almost incoherent sobs, relay the bad news to your folks, you know they don’t have anything close to the $3,000 or so dollars that you need to stay in school (because it’s never like an easy, breezy 300 bucks.)
Now, the financial aid folks do offer you an alternative. You could just sign this application here and all your worries will be alleviated and your obligations satisfied—for the time being. They shove a few forms with text as dense and intricate as a Shakespearean sonnet under your desperate little nose and explain, in abbreviated albeit cryptic terms, the conditions of your loan with one glowing, neon sign-bright bottom line that sells you: you won’t have to pay until after you graduate. Phew! What a relief. That’s at least a few years away. You unknowingly sign your deal with the devil and traipse off to the cafeteria to get a piece of fried chicken and tell your girls the good news.
Then you graduate. Congratulations flow. You party. You celebrate. You thankfully move into the “I’m an adult for real for real” phase of your life. You might get your first apartment. You hit the pavement to put those book smarts and that internship experience to work in the real world. Oh—and you get a call from your student loan servicer welcoming you to the repayment phase. Yeah, it’s time to pay up, baby girl. You and two-thirds of other college graduates who leave school with debt, most of it at least $20,000. Graduate and professional students have it even worse. Those loans average anywhere between $27,000 to $114,000, depending of course on the field, school and specialty. And in this market, none of those MAs, BSes, PhDs or MSWes are adding up to j-o-b-s. In fact, defaults are at their highest rate in 11 years. And even if, in the dire straits of drowning in good debt gone bad, you file bankruptcy, guess what? Everything, even your gambling obligations, can be discharged—except your student loans. Those you still have to pay.
I’m not even going to pretend to have the solution to remedy the high cost of education in this country. I’m just a freelance writer and editor with a Bachelor of Arts in English and an almost-finished Master of Arts in African-American Studies that together will cost me, by the time all is said and done, way more than they’re probably worth when interest is compounded by them and reluctantly paid by me. I just know firsthand how terrible it is to second-guess your pursuit of education because the only way you can finance your desire to learn is through borrowing money. It’s messed up. There is $85 billion in student loan debt burdening everybody from anesthesiologists to architects. It’s funny—I paid all that money to learn but one of the greatest lessons I got out of school was to read the freakin’ fine print.