From an early age, it was expected I would go to college. I showed an aptitude for technical drawing, proved an incredible talent for spacial conception, and had the analytic as well as artistic mind not seen by many. It was decided I would be an architect. That is the direction I was pushed in from age 8. When I achieved college age, I was already an accomplished draftsman and artist, had excelled in academics, and ranked high in all advanced placements. I was easily accepted to all of the schools on my list.
I had a general idea of what my parents could afford, but no true concept of the cost of education. What was the difference between $12,000 and $24,000? I didn’t care.. All I saw was my life laid out ahead of me: a prestigious career, a beautiful home and family, travel, and little concern for finances. College would get me there, and my abilities meant that it didn’t matter how much it would cost; it would be worth it, and don’t have to get payday loans while living.
I was given a full ride at an in state school for four years of a six-year program, but I was also awarded a hefty scholarship at one of the best private art schools in the world. The scholarship would pay just about everything but my supplies, room and board for four years of a five-year program. Being told that a degree from said school would get me anywhere I wanted to be, I chose the private institution.
In the first four years, tuition rose with each passing semester. My scholarship did not. At the beginning of my super-senior year, I already owed about $40,000 just from the fraction of tuition I’d paid in the previous four years and all the accompanying costs of school. But at this point I knew the scholarship had run out and there was still another year to go before my goal. I sat down with a financial aid officer who said to me, “Figure out how much you think you will need for the year; tuition, supplies, room, and board … and we’ll double that amount, because that is what you’ll really need…” (To this day, I am convinced she told me this because she got a hefty kick-back from the loan institution.)
Being naive about all things financial in my early 20s, I listened to this woman and took out a private co-signed loan with my parents for twice as much as I needed. And yes, it really was twice as much. I joined a travel program and spent a semester in Europe because I had so much extra cash. No one ever gave it a second thought, because we all truly believed that my degree would get me anywhere I wanted, and the experiences I could slip under my belt would be just as valuable.
By the end of that last semester, I had burnt myself out. After graduation, I decided to take a brake from the design world. I moved back to my home town and got a place with some friends, found a decent bartending job, and enjoyed myself for a summer, while my loan payments were still in grace. I figured I could take some time to collect myself and then continue pursuing my career. This was in 2006.
The next year, when the housing market crashed, I quickly realized I was in trouble. No one was building. No one was designing, especially not in my already impoverished area of the country. I couldn’t afford to move away for work, and I couldn’t find work in my field aside from an unpaid internship. Suddenly, the entire life I had built was unobtainable, and I had over $70,000 in student loan debt looming over my head.
As a last ditch effort, I signed up for a Computer Drafting course at a local community college. The kicker was their “96 percent job placement rate.” Another $10,000 in debt and I found myself in the first year of the 16-year program that the job placement rate dropped to about 10 percent. I wasn’t one of that 10 percent.
In time, I found myself a semi-decent job that I do enjoy, but it doesn’t pay as well as it should. It is a job, not a career. I use some of my skills, but not enough to keep me excited. By this point, I am too far gone from the education process to get back into my field. With no on-the-job experience, I may as well not have gotten the education in the first place. I am 32 and living in my childhood home off the generosity of my parents. What would otherwise be going toward rent is sucked up in loan payments every month (about $650 worth).
I dish out more than my monthly payment when I can afford it, but at this rate I will still be paying for another 25-30 years. I won’t be free of this anchor until I am almost 60 years old. With that realization, the hopes and dreams have all but disappeared. I will never own a house. I can’t afford to travel. I worry about my finances on a daily basis. I can’t even meet someone to start a family with because I am so consumed by this job that doesn’t pay me enough.
The pursuit of my American Dream has caused me to lose any prospect of achieving it. When I think back, I still do value my education. I relish the memory of all the things I’ve done and appreciate the lessons I learned. Would I do it the same way? Nope. Not knowing what I know now. I would have gone to the state school perhaps, aimed a little lower in my expectations. A sad thought, but true. We are all told we can achieve greatness, that the world is our oyster and our dreams are obtainable. That just isn’t the case anymore. We are not great. The world is a clam, sealed shut and those dreams will never be anything more than just that. Dreams.