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College changed my life. I want the same for my students — with less debt

A group of college students in the university amphitheatre, with two professors monitoring. (Getty Images)
A group of college students in the university amphitheatre, with two professors monitoring. (Getty Images)

I was an 18-year-old high school senior — soon to be a first-generation college student — when my mom tried to help me understand the implications of taking on student loans. It’s painful to admit it now, but I basically ignored her warnings. “Everybody has college loans,” I remember saying. “I’ll get a good job after college and pay them back in no time.” I may have even uttered the phrase I’ve become infamous for in my family, “Money comes in, and money goes out.”

I’m not sure what kind of job I thought I’d land that would bring the money in — I was an English major who only ever wanted to write, and the closest thing I had to a plan was to pen a romance novel under a pseudonym that would fund my more artistic endeavors. But at 18 I felt certain that somehow everything would work out, so I took on college loans to pay for my undergraduate education in English, and then again to pay for my master’s degree in creative writing.

I also worked while I was in college and grad school … a lot. I sorted mail in the college mailroom, sold computer printers at Best Buy, made fudge in a tourist town candy shop, cleaned bathrooms at my parents’ bed and breakfast inn, manned the front desk of a small motel, and ran the projector in the Omni Theater at the Museum of Science. That is to say, I worked nonstop and still needed loans to fund my education.

It’s been over two decades since I took out my first student loans. In those years, I got married and had two kids. I have had more jobs than I care to count and have lived in several cities. Four years ago, my wife and I bought our first house, years after many of our friends had done the same. Life has gone on and paying off student loans — often on income-based repayment plans — has been a part of that life. After all these years, my debt still stands at around $30,000, which is, thanks to high interest rates, just about the amount I initially borrowed.

So, you can imagine my utter joy and relief when President Biden announced a plan to forgive $10,000 in student loan debt for low and middle-income borrowers. And, as if that wasn’t enough, I was thrilled to learn that, as a Pell Grant recipient, I am eligible for an additional $10,000 in relief. I stand to see two-thirds of my loan debt canceled. My family’s financial outlook today looks a lot different than it did just two weeks ago.

As I begin to settle into this new reality, I’ve been thinking about all that my college education has meant to me. I could never enumerate the ways that going to college changed my life. It opened doors for new career possibilities, of course, but it was so much more than that. It opened doors to a good life in the fullest sense. There is hardly a part of me today that wasn’t shaped in a significant way by the things I learned between the ages of 18 and 22.

There is hardly a part of me today that wasn’t shaped in a significant way by the things I learned between the ages of 18 and 22.

Now that I’m a college professor, I hear from students all the time who think that the whole reason to earn a college degree is to be able to get a good job and make a lot of money. I hope it does that for them, but career training was not the main feature of the education I received, nor is it the most significant component of the education I offer in my classes. I tell my students that I’m here to help build better humans. Often, this elicits nervous chuckles, which is fine, but also, I really mean it. When I know that a better life through education is possible, why wouldn’t I make that my goal?

Still, I hate that many of my students — a significant number of whom are first generation college students like me — will leave college shackled with debt. I wish that, in addition to forgiving a portion of my debt, President Biden’s plan included some ideas to make college more affordable in the first place.

When my students ask about life after college, I am realistic in describing what it is like to live with loans. But I can also speak from experience when I say that their education will open doors not just to good careers, but to a good life as well, albeit one in which the reality of loan repayment is a fixture. Maybe that will change one day. Maybe they’ll be the ones to change it. In the meantime, back in the classroom, we return to the reason we’re all there — to discover what living a good life might mean.

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Jonathan D. Fitzgerald Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is a writer and assistant professor of humanities and general education at Regis College.

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