American scam: My kid and I are both supposed to go broke paying for college? Forget it

I've learned what many students and parents already know: The student loan system is a quasi-criminal shell game

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 22, 2018 6:59PM (EDT)


I opened my daughters' college funds when they were babies. I've put money into them every month since. I've lived through moves, medical disasters and multiple layoffs. And as my firstborn daughter now approaches her high school graduation, I know that 18 years of saving have not yielded much in the way of college tuition. I also know that the current American student tuition and loan system is a more shocking shell game than I'd even dreamed.

My own education began in earnest last autumn. At a State University of New York college fair, a financial aid representative told a room full of hopeful parents that with family and student loans, they expected each student to graduate with a monthly loan payment of a mere $250. I get that this doesn't sound wildly off the projected debt track for most recent graduates, but it does presume a steady job with a respectable starting salary right out of the gate — a particularly tricky projection if you're going for a liberal arts degree. And considering that millennials are currently unemployed at triple the overall national rate, tell me how solid you are in your financial optimism for the generation coming up behind them. Meanwhile, our nation's student loan debt is the second-highest consumer debt category, with the average class of 2016 graduate carrying nearly $38,000 in loans. It's a trillion-dollar crisis.

When we toured a SUNY campus in October, I asked a financial aid officer what kind of merit-based aid the school granted. "It's very competitive," she said, deploying the exact same tone that Rodeo Drive shopgirl used on Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman." "But you might get aid from some of the SUNYs you wouldn't want to go to." She then disparagingly named a smaller university in the same academic system.

A few weeks later, at a respected Catholic university, an administrator answered my question about how they assess financial aid awards for families with fluctuating incomes by proffering a goofy shrug. The message was clear. They don't care. And why should they? They get paid, whether you stand to lose everything or not.

It all feels chillingly familiar. We bought our apartment in 2006, after searching exhaustively through three peak years of the subprime mortgage heyday. (I even wrote a book about it.) Back then, I remember realtors and loan officers who pushed aggressively for ways to make our dream home a reality, individuals who talked through the fine print like they were skating through the side effects in an antidepressant TV commercial. I basically wanted to take a "Silkwood" shower every day. But the current student loan game is even more insidious — enticing two distinct generations to simultaneously gamble their saved and future earnings.

Just last week, the New York Times editorial board spoke out against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' "eagerness to shill for corporate interests" after her department issued guidance  that essentially kneecaps states from stepping in to regulate direct student loans. Over the past few years, as the shady practices  of many loan programs began coming to light, some states have tried to intervene to better protect students from misinformation and deceptive offers. In 2015, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau identified "a wide range of sloppy, patchwork practices that can create obstacles to repayment, raise costs, cause distress, and contribute to driving struggling borrowers to default."  It also noted what can only be described as a full-blown crisis — "one out of four student loan borrowers struggling to repay their loans or already in default."

Yet the enticements just keep coming. Last week, a package from one of the SUNY schools my daughter was accepted to arrived, addressed to her. The outside promisingly declared "Financial Aid Award." The "award" for a $25,000 a year school was $1,500 in scholarship money, $5,550 in federal direct unsubsidized loans and a cheerful message that "Your parents may be eligible for up to $17,131 in a Federal Parent PLUS loan." PER YEAR. The private universities she's been accepted to have all — in a move that feels a lot like when I worked retail, and had to mark up merchandise in order to then mark it "on sale" — offered her $20,000 scholarships against tuition of $67,000. PER YEAR. After our federal and state student financial aid, we're nowhere close to paying for that.

I keep wondering how other people are doing it. A few weeks ago, I went out with a friend whose daughter is currently attending a prestigious Northeastern university. Her family is more well-off than mine, but they're not the kind of people for whom a $68,000 a year bill is no sweat either. They got a little financial aid, she told me, and the rest they were making up for in loans — both parental and student. "We took out a second mortgage," she told me, as I nearly fell off my barstool. Another friend has two kids in the same $73,000 a year school. "Loans," she shrugs. "The number doesn't even seem real." The only family I know that isn't completely flipping out features a dad who briefly made a ton of money in entertainment and cashed out while he was on top. His kid goes to a modest state school in another part of the country.

These are not reckless people. These are not dumb people. These are, however, parents who went to colleges with names that open doors. Parents whose own mothers and fathers provided well for them, people who got good grades and waited tables and made it work. I'm scared for them.

The expectation that we can give our kids what our families gave us seems like a reasonable one. It's also an illusion. My alma mater, Temple University, costs $30,000 more a year than when I attended — and received decent merit-based financial aid. The dream of state schools as an affordable alternative has gotten pretty shaky too. In November, CNBC reported that tuition has risen by 213 percent at public four-year colleges in the past three decades. SUNY Binghamton, with its nearly 40 percent tuition increase since 2011, is far from unique. In just the past 10 years, in-state tuition and fees at public colleges increased by 65 percent.

Education costs have risen at a pace triple that of housing in the same period. A recent Rolling Stone report called student debt "America's next financial black hole." As it ominously observed, the system is rigged: "You can't get out of the debt. Since most young people find themselves unable to make their full payments early on, they often find themselves perpetually paying down interest only, never touching the principal." 

There will always be people around to make you feel like a failure for not being able to afford something that costs too much money. People who disparage you if your skills and academic talents aren't aligned with our shocking wealth gap. It's a system that thrives on shame. But if you, as either a student or a parent, believe the rules of the game haven't completely changed, you're vulnerable to devastating exploitation.

Last week, a string of acceptances came in to our house from our New York City university system. (Which within living memory was entirely free, or close to it, for all students.) Their tuition clocks in at around $7,000 a year, and they're good schools. We're still waiting on a few other schools, including a few that offer need-blind aid. It's excruciating.

I know that education is a gamble. Can these schools give my daughter what a bigger-name school — and all that debt — can't? I honestly can't predict that. I certainly recognize the seductive allure of a green campus away from home, of big-name professors and a cohort of influential lifelong connections. I understand that "But you wouldn't go bankrupt at 30!" is a phrase destined to fail any teenager's marshmallow test. 

How can I explain that the more financial independence my daughter has, the easier it will be if she wants to make a career choice that isn't about the biggest paycheck, and the safer she'll be if she ever has to leave an abusive relationship? How do I say that a system designed to impoverish everyone hurts women so much more? We're still in the throes of figuring it all out. I don't judge anyone else's private financial choices. But there's no way I can bet everything my child and I have -- or ever will have -- because some financial aid officer tries to sell me something I can't even remotely pay for. I have to stay sane. Because in four years, I have to do this all over again with her sister.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams