Growing up in Texas, I always figured I’d go to college in state for cheap. But during my senior year in high school, a college recruiter convinced me that leaving my home state would bring me closer to my dream of becoming a writer.
My family did not have the means, and scholarship-hunting was rough-going at first. When a scholarship didn’t immediately appear, someone called me a self-centered bastard for possibly putting my family in even more dire financial straits to go to a private college.
Ultimately, I won several scholarships and ended up choosing Howard University. Two years after graduation, I’m still waiting to be able to manage the financial burden of it. Scholarships didn’t cover everything, and now my monthly student loan payment is equivalent to a mortgage payment. To make matters worse, entry-level jobs in media don’t pay enough to cover my loans.
For a long time, I felt alone. The worsening economic crisis has made me realize I’m not. Government aid has not kept up with the cost of rising tuition. Many students are turning, like I did, to private lenders to foot their education bills—a move recently pushed by the Treasury Department. Given the scarcity of jobs and options to defer payments even scarcer, it’s no wonder grads are heading to Vegas to gamble so they might pay off their loans.
Sometimes my whole college experience seems like a gamble. When some of my one-time scholarship awards expired, and government aid fell short, I turned to private loans. When I didn’t have cash to pay for books, or rent money to allow me to take the New York internships that boosted my résumé, I turned to credit cards.
What sounded like a good idea at the time has turned into a personal hell. I might have done just as well going to pawn shops and EZ Pay loan stores to help me pay for my degree. Now they seem no worse than the predatory loans I got sucked into.
I was ecstatic during my 2007 graduation ceremony. I was the first male in my family to have a college degree. But the minute I stepped back into my room, took off my gown and looked at my degree, all of that hope and promise that I had when I first arrived at Howard vanished. I looked at my credit report. I saw how much I owed. I wanted to cry.
I began my job search and researched repayment options. I could handle my federal loans, but my private aid overwhelmed me. After a few months of searching, I did get a job offer. It was a job assisting the editor-in-chief of a magazine where I dreamed of working as a child. I initially accepted, then a few days later I spoke with my private lender and discovered how much I’ll owe a week.
I went to school to get a job like the one I was offered, but my post-graduate loan commitment forced me to turn it down. When I returned home to Texas for a while, several people who had criticized my college ambitions welcomed me back with “I told you so.”
So what do I say now, when people ask me if it was all worth it? My answer is still, “yes.” College provided opportunities I couldn’t have gotten elsewhere. My only regret is that I didn’t think of a better way to pay for them.
Michael Arceneaux hails from Houston, lives in Harlem and praises Beyoncé’s name wherever he goes. Follow him on Twitter.