How I Graduated Debt-Free During the Student Loan Crisis
I consider myself fortunate. Like many of my friends, I am about to graduate from a top-tier university, but unlike many of them, I will be graduating this June debt-free. While the results have been rewarding, the journey was (as you’d expect) arduous.
In my senior year of high school, I had been accepted to ten universities. I was ecstatic and prideful, eagerly awaiting financial aid packages to help me narrow my choices. To my dismay, the best offer I received would require I graduate with over $40,000 in student loan debt. Even worse, part of that debt would be in Parent PLUS loans and I simply could not ask my parents to shoulder more debt than they already had.
After an anxious, sleepless night in April of 2012, I pulled out my laptop and submitted my application to my local community college. I knew that it was the only financially viable option, but it weighed heavy on me. My high school was (and still is) an educational powerhouse, churning out students for Ivy Leagues and top universities in the hundreds. When I told my peers and teachers I had elected to go to community college, nearly everyone told me I was throwing my life away and wasting my potential. I was crushed and my parents were heartbroken, feeling they had failed me.
As it turned out, community college was the best decision I could have made and I learned quickly that the school does not make the student, but rather the student makes the school. I made lifelong friends, traveled to Boston and Nicaragua to represent my school, and lived at home where I strengthened frayed family bonds. I interacted with hundreds of non-traditional students and became more humble and appreciative of my educational opportunities.
I also became obsessed with graduating debt free, partly for my own benefit and partly to prove my high school wrong. I worked all four years of college, sometimes two or three jobs at once. I applied to over a hundred scholarships and won eleven of them. When I transferred to UC San Diego, I left behind my car and ate on $20 a week so I could live entirely off my financial aid and scholarship money.
There were opportunities I made sure to take. I backpacked through Central America the summer of 2014 and I studied abroad in Argentina the summer of 2015 (which required another round of scholarship applications). I worked three internships, one at my community college and two at UCSD. I regret nothing that I did, but sometimes I regret turning down countless invitations from friends, either because I was working or studying to maintain the required GPA for my scholarships.
When I speak to high school students worried about the cost of college, I give them three pieces of advice: (1) apply to every scholarship you qualify for, even if the sum seems small (seriously, I could not possibly say this enough); (2) be honest with yourself about the value of your education [i.e. while education is priceless, a university education is not]; and (3) consider alternatives to prestigious “brand name” universities like community colleges, local state schools, gap years, and trade schools.
Many of my friends are bitter about the growing Millennial debt burden, a frustration I cannot begrudge them. Perhaps because I am facing a debt-free post graduation, I’m more ambivalent. The current situation of student borrowing is unsustainable, but electing a certain presidential candidate over another doesn’t seem a sufficient fix either. Since there is little I personally can do about the state of the economy or the state budgets, I’m trying to make the smartest life choices and encouraging others to do the same. At this point, all I can do is take my victories and run with them and have faith that the resilience, persistence, and optimism I have developed will carry me to the finish line.
Photo: Geisel Library, the stunning landmark of my soon-to-be alma mater University of California San Diego.
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