A fascinating account of what was required for the writer to get a college education and graduate without debt. He didn’t leave owing financial debt but there was definitely a very real cost.
On Monday, Elizabeth Warren announced her plan to erase student debt for up to 76 percent of American households currently paying back loans. Among a number of ill-advised hot takes I read in response to the proposal, I saw some people claim that paying for college “builds character” or that one should “choose a college they can afford,” as if the problem simply lies in a lack of money management, rather than a broken system.
So let’s talk about what it took for me to graduate from college debt-free.
I knew from a young age that I would need to fund my own college education. It was always assumed by my parents and myself that I would get a degree, but financing that degree wasn’t an option for my parents, who raised four children on my father’s tiny salary.
I was a home-schooled white girl from a middle-class family and I certainly wasn’t a prodigy of any kind, so I accepted that I almost certainly wouldn’t be eligible to receive a full ride to any school. I never even considered Ivy League applications, although I scored well on the ACT.
I started work at 15, if you don’t count office cleaning, weeding or odd jobs I held even earlier in my life. Throughout high school, I regularly worked 15-20 hours a week, juggling my job at a fast-food chain with work as a soccer referee, on top of volunteer work, schoolwork and family caregiving responsibilities. Any money I made went straight into a savings account for college.
I applied as a legacy student to a small private school where tuition was low and where I knew I would be eligible for scholarships. Before my freshman year, I spent hours and hours filling out the FAFSA application and applying for every scholarship I could find online. In the end, about half of my tuition was covered by scholarships and kind donations from my community.
I paid the other half out of my own pocket. I took on the highest credit loads possible to save money by finishing school ahead of schedule and I worked constantly, often up to 30 hours a week at three different jobs, including as a secretary, a lab monitor and a hostess. I filled every hour of the weekdays with classes or work shifts. I also worked during the summers and any school breaks.
I graduated debt-free in three years ― but it cost me in numerous other ways.
It cost me the freedom to explore new skills or classes because I didn’t have the luxury of time to experiment with learning about topics where I didn’t already excel. I discovered a deep passion for coding while taking a required computer science class, but I floundered when I decided to pursue the next-level course because I just didn’t have the time or energy to give it the attention I needed in order to succeed. Ultimately, I ended up passing with a C and, after that, I stuck to writing electives so that I could use my already strong experience in that subject to guarantee good grades. In a world where coding is increasingly valuable, I still worry about cutting off that skill and regret not having been able to explore my passion.
Graduating debt-free also cost me opportunities to travel abroad ― or to travel at all, frankly. I’ve still never been outside the United States, and I’m conscious of how much that limits my understanding of the world.
It cost me the opportunity to pursue extracurricular activities like leadership roles, volunteer work, and participating in sports or theater. Elated to have been recommended for a special leadership program at my university, I quickly grew discouraged when I realized that I would never be able to fulfill the obligations required of me due to my jobs and heavy class load. I watched, sometimes bitterly, as the candidates who were able to undertake the program were fêted in university publications and went on to become student body leaders and university ambassadors.
Graduating debt-free cost me any savings I might have brought into adulthood. At 22, I had an English degree and maybe $1,000 to my name.
It cost me relationships. I walked home late on Friday nights exhausted and lonely more weeks than I care to remember. My jobs as a lab monitor and hostess each required constantly working around couples, which served as a reminder of what I was missing out on. Some weeks I barely had time to call my long-distance boyfriend.
Graduating debt-free cost me my health and well-being. I didn’t have time to get sufficient sleep or exercise, or to eat enough, and that affected everything else in my life.
It cost me my sense of hope. I struggle even now with living with the mindset that I will never have enough to get by, which, among other things, makes me feel like I can’t even afford to replace the shoes from high school that broke just this week.
In the end, a debt-free degree cost me my sanity. In the four years following my graduation, while working as a writer and content strategist, I’ve suffered from extreme burnout and anxiety, conditions that make it hard for me to work even as I try to move toward creating financial stability.
Every decision I’ve made in the past 10 years has been driven by money. If that has taught me character, it’s at the cost of any kind of flexibility or ability to safely fail, which would have served me well in my formative years. I was so busy trying to pay for school ― and graduate before I racked up debt ― that I wasn’t able to enjoy it or, I believe, make the most of all the opportunities I had.
I recognize that many people aren’t in a position to get any kind of degree ― much less a debt-free one ― and I realize the privileges that have allowed me to get this far. I’m genuinely grateful for my experiences, as limited as they have been. However, this “success” of mine has been expensive in so many other ways and it’s not one that I believe we should consider sacred or even valuable.
I’m not a policy expert. I can’t speak to how ― or even if ― Sen. Warren’s plan might work. But I can testify that more support for college expenses would have changed my life and, ultimately, it could affect the chances our country has to achieve success and greatness in the future.
Kara McKlemurry is a content strategist, Twitter addict, inconsistent runner and book hoarder. She lives in Florida with her husband, who patiently stuck with her through three busy and exhausted college years. She has a dog who thinks he’s her life partner and two cats who only like her when she has food.