congratulations! you’re screwed

it’s that time of year. seniors in high school wait with bated breath to see some variation of these words appear:

“congratulations! you’ve been accepted…”

how exciting! did you get your college of choice? did you get into the same school as your best friend, girlfriend, boyfriend? did you make it? there’s an energy about it. there’s awe towards those few that get into an ivy league school. “did you know sara’s going to harvard?” “can you believe jonathan didn’t get into baylor?” “where are you going?” there’s so much ahead. so much to dream about. so much excitement. there are tears and heartbreak as some don’t make it into the college of their dreams. some relief as someone gets in to any school at all. some sadness within those who don’t think they’ll go or can’t afford it. but you, you’ve made it. you’re accepted.

i got accepted to college. several of them. i was a good student. national honors society. i even had a sweet patch for my letter jacket and wore a special hood at graduation. fancy! my s.a.t. and a.c.t. scores were above average, but i wasn’t getting a full ride anywhere, but i could go to college. of course i’d go. i was a smart kid from a middle class family. college was the norm. i never questioned whether or not i’d go to college. i just applied and i went. simple enough. i remember getting my fancy letter in the mail telling me i was accepted. only later would i realize that that prized piece of paper had a pretty good chance of being signed by a work study student in the mail room rather than the actual president of the university. how do i know? well, i worked for a college mail room and we signed all sort of signatures. anyway, i was young and naive when i got my letters of acceptance and i was proud to have options.

i knew i was going to college and i knew i was going to be the one to pay for it. it didn’t phase me. it was a normal thing for my middle class world. my parents both worked. we made enough to get by, do some fun things here or there. my parents put all three of us kids in braces, bought us cars and paid for all our sports and extracurricular activities. i had worked since i was 15 and knew i’d be working in college as well. but paying for school, well i had the great privilege of working with financial aid to figure that one out. i excitedly filled out my free application for federal student aid (fafsa) and got the most amazing letter back. it start out with “congratulations, you’ve been awarded…” congratulations? what the heck did it say that for? had i accomplished something? had i proven my capacity for anything? nope. i had signed up for an amazing amount of debt for which i was being congratulated by the party receiving the money. my college wrote me a letter congratulating me on all the debt i was accumulating that they were receiving. why not just say, “congratulations, you’re giving us money.” seriously, that’s what it’s saying. i was being congratulated for taking on debt so the school can be paid. i should have been congratulating them for getting me to sign away my future earnings to attend their institution.

back when i went to college it ran about $16,000 a year. so, if i had stayed there all four years (i transferred a couple of times) i’d have wound up with around $48,000 in student debt. now, that same school runs $30,000 a year. it’s nearly doubled in 17 years. that same four years would now cost $120,000. $120,000! are you kidding me. i was 17 when i made my college decision. i was a smart kid, but an idiot (when looking back from 35 everyone should see their 17 year old self as a bit of an idiot). i did well in school, but had no idea what i wanted to do in the years ahead. i wasn’t allowed to vote or drink. i couldn’t get a credit card, buy a house or get any other type of loan. i’d been working for a few years, but my pay checks were a couple hundred dollars a week. i had no concept of the impact of $16,000 a year much less $48,000 over 4 years. do you have a clue as to what $120,000 will be like for you? my friends and i were still toilet papering each others’ houses, staying up all night because we could and eating taco bell because 10 bean and cheese burritos sounded like a good idea. why in the world would anyone think i was capable of managing upwards of $50,000 in debt? why would i understand it? i had no concept. i just signed the papers assuming it was normal and it’d be fine and that amount is nearly 1/3 of what you’re going to face today. do you have a clue as to the impact of $120,000 of student debt on your future? any idea?

if you don’t, congratulations! you’re screwed.

now, go seek to understand it. it will change your life one way or another. understanding it will either change your life now and you’ll make different decisions about college. those decisions won’t be popular among friends. they won’t be as cool as going to a division one school with a great football team and an awesome party scene. it may look boring like community college and living in your parents’ basement. but that’s now, when you’re 17 or 18. you can make that decision at this point in your life or you may be forced into that decision later. sure, it’s not cool to live at home when you’re 18, but guess what, it’s humiliating to live at home with you’re pushing 30. please, i beg of you, go understand what it really means. don’t take your financial award letter as though you’ve accomplished something. if you have the wonderful privilege of being academically able to go to college then use that brain of yours to do the math, to seek wisdom, to understand the impact of the decisions you make these next few years. understand the impact on your future, your dreams, your freedom.

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