On Student Debt
As I sit down to write this article, I find that I do not know where to begin.
This feeling is similar to the sensation of discovering that I could no longer afford to go to Bennington with the amount of money I was receiving from the school.
I can only imagine that many Bennington students have found themselves in this situation, and I feel extremely fortunate that I was able to be here for two years before I ran into the inevitable daunting process that is taking out private loans. I don’t know the number of students who have private loans out at Bennington, or in all the liberal arts colleges, or in colleges in general. I don’t know what the average amount of loans to take out is, or what the reasonable amount of loans to take out is. What is a safe interest rate? How much money am I going to earn when I graduate? Who can I ask these questions of?
For all these inquiries, there are few precise answers. I still have not found them.
Like all students at Bennington (hopefully), I believe fully in the value of a liberal arts education. I can’t imagine myself at a school with “required classes” or “majors.” And, even though I’m often sick and always exhausted (as are we all), I can’t imagine doing less work than I have the opportunity to do at Bennington, because that is what I’m here to do. I’m here to do things that I care about; I’m here to do all of them, and I couldn’t do that at any other school
However, being faced with the prospect of taking out about a third of my yearly tuition in loans for the next two years (I won’t get into specifics, except to say that situation would leave me with approximately $800.00 to pay monthly until any hypothetical children of my own have graduated college), I started to question the system we have here. For the most part, we work more than a full time job, and pay approximately the yearly salary of somebody with an actual full time job to do it.
The theory behind this is basically that we will, as a result of our college degree, be able to make more money per year than what we’re paying, thusly being able to pay off our debt from school. And that’s all well and good if you’re going to med school. I have no idea what job my Bennington degree is going to get me, and in fact, I wouldn’t want a particularly high paying job. I’m going into the theater, I have no illusions about my future wealth. Maybe I’ll be a stage manager, and if I become the most successful stage manager of all the stage managers and end up working on some Phantom of the Opera-analog for three decades, I’ll make over a hundred thousand dollars a year. But I don’t want that. If I wanted that, I’d be at a conservatory. I’m going to most likely (god, hopefully) be working on projects at various not-for-profit theaters on and off until I’m forty. And what yearly salary does that get me? What is my rent going to be like, where will I be? I do not know. And I think that’s the case for a lot of Bennington people—even after four FWTs, our life goals are sort of vague and flexible. So we’ll all be able to go change the world, but will we be able to pay off our student loan debt?
The scale of the money that we pay to go here is almost impossible to grasp, unless perhaps you’re studying that sort of thing. For me, a girl who has never bought a plane ticket or a piece of technology that cost more than $300, it is unfathomable. Oh, okay, I have to take out tens of thousands of dollars in loans to stay here—what’s the difference between $20,000 and $40,000, really?
The answer is a big difference, and they’re both basically entirely unreasonable. I didn’t know this until I made a horrifying spreadsheet calculating what my loan payments would be for the next ten or twenty years. Even when broken down into monthly chunks, the prices are startling. Before I made this spreadsheet, it was tempting to stay here regardless of the cost. Bennington is a really special place, and I worry that another college will think I’m crazy rather than encourage my cross-discipline ideas. Transferring to a school where I’d have to take a math class is not something I’m interested in doing. For a while I thought that as long as I was lucky enough to be here, I should work hard to stay, which included going in to as much debt as necessary in order to see my Plan to completion. After all, how can you put a price on the view from the End of the World?
As it turns out, I managed, through a series of rather complex formulas, to figure out what exactly that price was for me. It is important to note that my professors, peers, and the people in the financial aid office were extremely supportive throughout the process, but ultimately it got to the point that the only thing left to do was actually determine how much I was willing to pay to go here. The adults in my life at home either didn’t go to college or went to engineering school, so it was difficult to look to my parental figures to determine what was reasonable by comparison. I asked around campus (as politely as possible), but few students actually know off the top of their heads how much debt they were in and at what interest rate it was borrowed at. I suppose I can’t blame them—they are rarely fun figures to have on your mind. And so, it was left only to me to determine what was reasonable, and, again, being completely unable to predict my future salary, this was almost impossible. But about two months and 612 excruciating cells in Microsoft Excel later, I figured it out.
My story ends there for now. I’ve handed in my appeals form, finally—and I encourage anyone who is considering appealing to bite the bullet and hand their form in sooner than I did mine. Badger the financial aid office until they explain all your options to you, and talk to your professors. If I have taken any lesson from this experience, it is that if you are here, it is because people want you to be here, and they will do what they can to help you stay.