Real Talk: Getting into Debt for School and Lowered Expectations

July 17, 2015

A phone call with my mom got me thinking about the evolution and shift my family has endured for as long as i’ve been alive. And now more than ever that shift is being perfectly illustrated in the response to my sister’s upcoming departure for college in the fall. So i’m just going to stream of consciousness this whole thing out and maybe it will get me somewhere. Maybe you’ll relate.

Backstory on me: My mom had me when she was an 18 year old senior in High School in my hometown in rural Michigan. She and my bio dad didn’t stay together and she got married to my stepdad my life has been an interesting climb from growing up definitely below the poverty line to leaving the house as we firmly entered the middle class. While I was filling out my fafsa my parents were purchasing a modular home and a quarter acre near a lake here in Texas and it totally messed up my financial aid profile. BUT because the only reason we could afford this double wide in the middle of nowhere was that my dad is just ridiculously good with finances it didn’t mess up my aid too much and I still qualified for enough loans to cover the cost of my tuition, plus I had a 3k a year scholarship that saved my life (that’s a story for another time but it ends in me shaking and crying as I opened my award letter and saying “I can go to college” over and over again as my mom cried with me on the floor).

I was able to pay for my housing up front my freshman year because i’d saved enough from my part time jobs (yes plural, having one job is still weird for me) and gotten enough from family and friends for my graduation that I was able to afford my dorm and meal plan. After freshman year I worked near full time hours to cover my living expenses after I moved off campus.

Long personal story short: My family was able to provide for me growing up. My mom got her masters while I still lived at home, she was a SAHM for my sisters and I until I went to High School. We never needed for anything even though I wanted EVERYTHING because I was a kid and I was greedy and ungrateful. My biggest dreams were buying things not on clearance and not having to spend 3+ hours in the grocery store while my mom couponed. Like seriously, I didn’t have it hard, many people share this story and it’s a fun bonding moment when you connect with other people who are also excited in their adult lives about buying name brand items and then quickly realizing there was a reason your family never did.

But it meant I had to pay for college by myself without help from my family. My story is not anything crazy or abnormal but sometimes I have to reflect on it and now is one of those times.

There is a 7 year difference between myself and my middle sister and during the time that I left home until now my family has continued to do pretty well for themselves. They bought another property, rent out our old house, both of my parents have well paying jobs and they’ve generally gotten comfortable. They managed even to stay in pretty good financial terms during my dad’s pretty scary (and costly) fight with stage three colon cancer. All this once again due to just really smart financial decisions on my dad’s part. They continue to survive and more than that, be stable.

Stability has always been the goal for me. Just really solid financial stability. And doing it not necessarily without a man, but certainly not doing it only because of one. I’ve found myself in a wonderful relationship with a great man who is truly a partner and together we’ve reached a pretty comfortable level of financial stability and even when we feel like we set ourselves back on our savings plans we’re still good to go.

My sister is entering college this fall and because of my parent’s continuing success, she got about 1/5 of what was needed in loans in order to attend college this fall. She got no scholarships despite having a better GPA and Class Ranking than I did and had to fund the rest of college with private loans from my family’s bank. These are definitely not subsidized loans. She will begin accruing interest immediately. She is already as much in debt from college as I am and she hasn’t even started school yet and all of this comes from her going to a public school in Texas in a VERY in demand field (engineering) especially seeing that she’s female. And still that disconnect remains.

Now what has got me thinking about this isn’t just the abject absurdity of this situation, the fact that a smart talented young woman entering a field desperately in need of women can’t get funding for a public university education, but rather the thing that i’m having to think about is the reaction to her situation versus the reaction of my entering college.

Already my mom is reassuring her that her education is an investment. Her loans will be a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of her future earning potential. Don’t worry about it. You won’t just be middle class in the future, you’ll be upper middle class! Vs. The moments leading up to my entering college. Getting the acceptance letter but not being able to accept their offer until a few weeks later when I got another letter informing me of my scholarship. The doubt I felt throughout my entire education as I questioned if what I wanted and was passionate about would sustain me. The fear I felt, and still feel, when I think about what taking a chance on my career would look like, all the ways I could fail, all the ways my stability would be utterly lost.

When you grow up under the poverty line, and even after you’ve risen above it, those lessons linger. No matter how much it’s couched in a fun guise of “smart shopping” and no matter how much you never truly need for anything, you grow up noticing that things are different for you. Your family is gaining ground but true and absolute stability is still not quite there yet. You grow up thinking your life is normal until you grow all the way up and realize it wasn’t. That other people around you don’t think about money as much as you do. That other people didn’t have to work almost full time hours throughout college so they could afford their own apartment and groceries and bills and only had to take out loans for tuition because what if you couldn’t get a job after college?

This is a fear many of us have and I can tell you student loans aren’t the end of the world. They are a burden but for most they’re not insurmountable. But I can’t help but be adamant that when my mother tells me she is glad that she had to pay, and is still paying, her own way through college, that it made her a better person to fight. I have to be adamant in how much I disagree. In how much we can tell ourselves the struggle made us greater, it makes us more appreciative, it makes us better people, somehow the struggle is good. People who struggle and who have struggled feed this to themselves. We feed these “darkest before the dawn” narratives to ourselves.

When my mother objected to my objection she said “But look at what you have! A house! Two cars! You don’t even have many loans!” it set me on this path of thought we currently find ourselves on because in that moment all I could think about was how for those of us who struggle, we also have to tell ourselves that we have made it. That stability, financial stability, firm middle class status is all we need. And here I am. I’m 25 years old and I have that. I actually have that for real. And coming from that struggle I feel so guilty for thinking, and what else? What didn’t I do? I didn’t apply for loans so I could study abroad because I wasn’t sure I could pay it back. I couldn’t take that risk. I didn’t pursue a career in my major. I didn’t take that risk. I took an alternative teaching certification program and accepted a job in my hometown. I didn’t take that risk.

Not to say i’m ungrateful for my life. I love my home. I love my job. I love my boyfriend and our life. But when my mother tells me that our struggle is preferable to what others go through who have a financial safety net, to those who had a paid for education. As she tells my sister she’ll be glad for the struggle their success, and her eventual success brings her. I can’t help but feel like, no, this is not better. Okay? Good? Enjoyable? Eventually successful? Yes.

Has it irreconcilably shaped the course of my life because every move i’ve ever made in my life has been out of a need for survival and stability? Yes. It has. Do people who have that safety net experience this? Do they risk more? Do they play it safe? Probably not in the same way. Do they live out of expectation sometimes? Sure. Do they necessarily always plan for the worst because the other shoe usually drops? Probably not.

I’m not sure if I have a point here other than this weird reflection of what shifting socio economic classes looks like in context of loans for a college education. At what point do we start taking risks? In which class are we free to do that? What level of stability is it that means we can take out those loans? What are the circumstances? When do we chase those dreams? Which of those dreams are justifiable to chase?

Because even now in stability with a safety net that grows wider, the risk is still the risk of a high paying job in an in demand field.

Being an older sibling is weird when your younger siblings grow up in different circumstances than you do. When they don’t remember some of the things that were formative for you, that make you more cautious than them, more willing to take a second job before they will even take a first job.

I think about class a lot. I think about the system we live in that structures our class a lot. I think specifically about what it means to operate and grow in that system and what it looks like to watch that happen. I think about my family and how i’ve watched it happen. I think about it a lot.

And that’s really all i’ve got. A bunch of tangled emotions about taking risks, and when you realize that your only real goal has ever been stability, and what it looks like when that happens, and what it looks like when you reach that point and have to find a new goal, and reflect on what you did and didn’t do to get here. What you chose to give up along the way. And at some point you have to be happy for how fortunate your sisters are for getting the opportunity to view 4x the amount of debt you have as an opportunity, when for you it would have meant the opposite.

Life is funny that way.


  1. Reply

    Sara Strauss

    I grew up (and still live) in Westchester, NY, which is a county of very rich people. I however am not rich. I’m a middle class girl who went to high school surrounded by kids who could throw a $100 bill in the garbage and not think anything of it. My dad is a foot doctor, but since my parents went through a horrible divorce he can’t afford to just be a doctor. I had to use fafsa too and now I’m in a lot of debt, which I hate. Luckily, I went to Purchase College, which is a state school, so it’s pretty cheap by college standards. I’m now paying $350 a month to tuition, which is a lot since I only work part-time. Ugh, debt!!

    1. Reply

      Meagan Crowe

      That’s always so frustrating! The area I’m from (and now teach in) has such a huge wealth gap it’s crazy! I teach in a school where 70%+ of our kids qualify for free lunch and then in opposition to that over half of our district comes from households with a a 350k+ median household income. It’s nuts!

      I went to a state school too and my little sister is going to one as well but her program is so much more demanding than mine was so she won’t really have the time to work like I did (I worked almost full time for 3 years of school).

      College in this country is nuts!

  2. Reply


    I can definitely relate to this. In fact, I teared up a little bit when you wrote about receiving your scholarship letter. I was the first person in my family to attend college, despite having a brother who is twelve years older than me. If I didn’t work my ass off in high school to get a scholarship, it wouldn’t have happened because my family wouldn’t have been able to afford it. And even with that scholarship, I had to take out loans once I transferred to university (I started my education at a community college — part of the scholarship deal) and work to pay a portion of tuition out of pocket because I couldn’t get a loan that covered all of the costs. Still, my monthly loan payments are manageable. I still haven’t reached the level of stability you describe here, but it will be sweet when I do.

    1. Reply

      Meagan Crowe

      Yeah I didn’t really realize how important sharing this was until I was driving home last night and ended up talking to my boyfriend about this situation and it’s impact on me (bundled up with LOTS of other things) for like 45 minutes. The narrative is like super common but I feel we also are so isolated all the time. in particular I feel that the stability thing is what gets me the most. For a lot of people they never even think of this level as anything other than a given but for me it’s like “holy crap. I did it. We did it.” My mom didn’t go to college until I was in Junior high and she was the first in our family too. So much of what I want in life is borne out of that need to ‘make it’ and i’m really glad that other people out there can associate with this. It makes me definitely feel less isolated for sure.

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