Loan debts limit college grads’ contributions

Marketplace Staff Jan 16, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: The Department of Education says the average college student owes almost $20,000 dollars when they graduate. About the only thing that’s surprising about that is the average debt isn’t higher, as it is for Youth Radio’s Clare Robbins. She’s 24 years old and graduated from a private liberal arts college in 2004. And she says paying back her loans affects more than just her financial future.

CLARE ROBBINS: When I think of all the things I’d love to do with my life — travel the world, start my own nonprofit, pursue higher education — there’s this one annoying voice of dissent that always pipes up. It says, “Um, hello? Student loan debt!”

All these dreams cost money. And all my money, for as far into the future as I can see, will go to repaying my college student loans.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t take my college education for granted, and I’m thankful that I even had access to credit. But I’m sitting on a mountain of debt. Over $65,000 dollars worth. Until I put a couple loans into forbearance, my monthly installments were over $600.

Furthermore, I have a big personal defect that prevents me from really getting somewhere with all these repayments: my ideals. I was that stereotypical women’s college activist. I studied “Critical Social Thought” and did performance art about racism.

When I graduated, my progressive-minded friends and I faced a challenge: How do we do work that we feel good about and pay the bills?

Some of my peers didn’t even mess around with the idea of satisfying work, and headed straight to corporate firms. The hope was that an artistic, socially-conscious lifestyle could wait until our 30s.

I suppose that would have been the financially sane decision, but could I have stayed sane working for “The Man?” It might sound cliché, but I truly had to think: getting that low-paying nonprofit gig would also be an investment in my emotional and mental well-being.

I’ve finally settled into work in public radio, and I feel good about that. But that means picking away at my debt mountain with a toothpick.

Then, there is the future. I definitely feel like my ability to think big and manifest “the next episode” in adulthood is tied up in financial fear. The thought of pursuing graduate studies seems laughable. A home of my own, unimaginable. And service work abroad, indulgent.

I know I am incredibly privileged to even entertain those ideas about my future. But this isn’t what most college grads worried about a generation ago.

RYSSDAL: Clare Robbins graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 2004. She’s currently living here in Los Angeles. Her story was produced for us by Youth Radio.

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