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A Hopeful Master's Student's Lament
Drenched in Debt
by ALYSSA ROHRICHT

I wasn’t sure what to write about today. I wrestled back and forth with different topics, knowing I needed to write something but lacking the focus to really tackle any of the topics I would normally jump at.  Truth be told, I’ve been distracted. Hugely distracted. And not only that. Obsessed.

I have been obsessing over my future. Specifically, I’ve been obsessing over whether or not I am willing to take out tens of thousands of dollars more in school loans to attend the graduate program of my dreams.

When I say “graduate program of my dreams,” I mean it. American University’s School of International Service for a Master’s in Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs. One of the best International Relations programs in the world and whose mission statement is to “wage peace” globally. When I tell my friends and family that I’ve been accepted at AU and for what program, they all gasp, amazed to hear of a program so obviously tailored just for me. When I first learned of the program, I knew fully and completely that it was the one for me and no other program would suffice. When I got my acceptance letter, I screamed with excitement and then cried. The amount of times I have happy-cried in my life are few and far between, but this program was deserving.

My happiness was not exactly short-lived, but was certainly quickly stifled when I realized that while I was accepted, I had not received one of the highly competitive graduate assistantships that would have covered the cost of my tuition; the cost of my tuition being in the range of $30,000 per year. My options: give up on the most perfect program ever or take out more student loans.

Being that I was one of the many who had to take out loans to pay for my undergraduate degrees, the idea of tripling what I would have to pay back was not an attractive one. The loans I’m currently paying off for my B.A. in Professional Writing and a B.A. in Philosophy are somewhere around $30,000 and I know that I’m not even one of the worst off. NBC News reports that the average college student that graduated in 2011 had around $26,600 in student loans, and the bubble is only growing. A report recently released by the New York Federal Reserve only confirmed this fact, putting total student debt at about $966 billion at the close of 2012, affecting around one in five households.

The overall number of student borrowers who are now past due on their loan payments has risen from under 10% in 2004 to over 17% in 2012. And while the student loan crisis has now surpassed auto loan debt and credit card debt, it is near impossible to liquidate, even after declaring bankruptcy. To make matters worse, students are graduating into a job market that simply is not hiring. Associated Press reported in 2012 that 53% of college graduates are either unemployed or working in jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree, and that lack of jobs is having huge repercussions across the economy. According to a Huffington Post article, student loan debt is affecting the housing market as fewer people with student loans are willing or able to purchase a home.

Fewer people with student loans are buying homes, according to data in the report. Of borrowers ages 25 to 30 who are taking out new mortgages, the percentage of those with student debt has fallen by half, from nearly 9 percent in 2005 to just above 4 percent in 2012.

The fed report sees a connection, stating, “The higher burden of student loans and higher delinquencies may affect borrowers’ access to other types of credit and the performance of other debt.”

True, there are measures in place to help alleviate the burden for student loan debt, such as the public service loan forgiveness program that is part of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007. The program allows for any remaining debt on school loans to be discharged after ten years of full-time employment in a public service. Public service jobs that would qualify under this provision include government work, military service, law enforcement, public health, public education, social work, and public interest legal services, clearly a stipulation that would benefit someone like myself whose primary life goal has been to work for the greater public good. That being said, ten years is a long time to be paying toward school loans upwards of $90,000 with a monthly payment plan that would likely equal close to my current rent.

The Occupy Movement has taken on this charge, as have many other organizations, to forgive student loan debt, an act that would stimulate the economy as graduates would have hundreds of dollars more per month to spend, and would relieve the crippling effect these loans have on the backs of students and families.  Robert Applebaum, a lawyer who graduated from Fordham Law School in the late 90′s with about $65,000 in student loan debt created ForgiveStudentLoanDebt.com, a site that calls for a bailout not of Wall Street or banks or other corporations, but a bailout of students and former students who find themselves trapped between paying for student loans or paying for food and housing. It was Applebaum’s own life experience that brought him to create this proposal, when he found himself having to make the choice between paying rent and paying his loans. He chose rent and put his loans into forbearance, causing his interest to rise in the meantime.

And that is where my significant other and I now find ourselves: scrambling for answers and agonizing over which is the right decision. Getting accepted to American University is an honor and feels like my life goals are finally being realized. I’ve had dreams since I was a young child of working for peace and equality and greater human dignity around the world and finally, a program that fits my needs and desires to affect those changes has become a very real possibility. Very real, if only I decide to pay an exuberant amount of money toward school loans for what very well may be the rest of my life. Very real, if only I decide to possibly forgo our chances of owning a home. Very real, if only I decide that a $90,000 debt at the end of two years of schooling is worth it. So what’s a girl to do? I haven’t the slightest.

Alyssa Rohricht maintains Crash Culture and can be reached at aprohricht@msn.com.