Capitol Thoughts
Capitol Thoughts Archive

The Cost of Opportunity by Janaye Ingram

May 11, 2012

May 11, 2012

I grew up watching “A Different World”.  It was a great show with people who looked like me and it shaped me, even if my experiences weren’t exactly the same as the show.  While I did grow up in a two-parent household, my parents weren’t a lawyer and a doctor.  I didn’t grow up in a cushy brownstone in Brooklyn, but rather a modest row home in Camden.  Okay, so maybe I was more like Jaleesa than Denise, but the show shaped me nonetheless and I couldn’t wait to get to college and share in some of the same experience as the characters.  Yet, what that show didn’t prepare me for was the cost of college.  Although my parents did their best, college savings just wasn’t part of the plan and that meant that I would ultimately need to take out student loans to pay for my education.  We moved from Camden to a neighboring suburb when I was a high school junior and I vividly remember sitting at the dining room table in the house that my parents saved their money to buy, filling out the FAFSA with my dad.  It was the first time I’d learned that my parents hadn’t saved anything for my college education.  Despite the reassurances by my parents that they would cover whatever gap existed between my student loans and the few scholarships I had, the thought I had as a 17 year old was possibly to not attend college at all.  It seemed so expensive and my cousin who got a job with only a high school degree was making what I perceived to be good money.  Unsure of my future and insecure about my ability to pay back the loans, I was nearly defeated at the very start.

Four years later when I was preparing for graduation from Clark Atlanta University, I didn’t have a job lined up.  In November of the year I graduated, I got the shock of my life when I realized that my student loan payments were due.  The amount that I owed was more than I even realized and it quickly settled in that while I was gaining an education, I was also amassing a huge debt.  People tried to tell me it was good debt, but to me that was oxymoronic and my mind was stayed on paying it down.  I found an entry-level job with an entry-level salary that never seemed like enough to cover all of my expenses.  And the loan debt largely remained.  A few years and still a huge amount of debt later, I made the decision to go back to school and earn a Master’s degree.  This time, I understood that I would be taking out more loans and paying for any additional costs on my own and yet it still seemed like a good idea.  But my degree was in nonprofit management better known as, “I work for the good of the community and pay comes secondary and not nearly enough.”  Earning just a little more than what I did as a baccalaureate graduate shortly after getting my Master’s, I struggled to find a way to repay the debt I accrued while earning my advanced degree.

My experience is not unique.  By the time they graduate, nearly a third of all undergraduate students have accumulated more than $20,000 in debt and that number jumps to half for students graduating with a Master’s degree.  For the first time ever, college debt surpassed credit card debt at over $1 trillion.  With that amount of debt, the last thing any student wants to hear is that their interest rate will double.  Earlier this week, Senate Republicans blocked debate on a bill introduced by Senate Democrats that would keep Stafford student loan interest rates at 3.4%.  At issue is how the measure would be paid for.  Democrats want to close loopholes for corporate stockholders, while Republicans want to pay for it by taking away preventative health care like cancer screenings.  If Congress doesn’t pass legislation to keep student loan interest rates at their current level, the rates will double on July 1st of this year.  Over 7 million students will be affected with borrowers paying an average of $1,000 more over the life of their loan.  To some people, paying an extra $1,000 may not seem like a lot, but to borrowers like me who have already incurred a significant amount of debt for the opportunity to have a better life, it is just too much.

I was able to attend a summit at the White House on College Affordability just yesterday.  As I listened to the stories of students from around the country, it was evident to me that there is great concern about the cost of higher education in our country.  If students cannot pay for their education, it not only affects their ability to stay or ascend to the middle class, it also affects our country’s competitiveness.  As Vice President Joe Biden said, “there’s no higher priority than us becoming the best educated nation in the world. A generation ago, we had a higher percentage of our population graduating from college than any other country in the world.  Today, you know where we rank? 16th.”

We can’t be the most powerful nation and not be the most educated.  And yet, here we are, trying to force people to choose between preventative care and education.  These are choices that we shouldn’t have to make.  Lawmakers know that an educated workforce makes for a stronger economy, and at a time when we are in recovery, don’t we want more people educated, not less?  If we take away programs like Pell Grants and work study and allow the interest rate on student loans to double, it sends a message that college is only a viable option for those who are wealthy enough to pay for it.  While I have a mountain of debt, I now understand what people meant when they said it was “good debt”.  It means that I have options for my future and it has created an opportunity for me to achieve the American Dream.  Attending college is a vehicle for so many students to a better life.  While they have to pay for it, why should we overburden them with extra costs?  Let’s not make them figure out economic equations about the opportunity cost of attending college, but let’s figure out ways to lower the cost of the opportunity.