The Absurdity of Student Loan Debt
It was easier to have faith in myself after I accepted my expensive but human error
When I was getting my MFA in creative writing, a professor asked us to write a list of our regrets. While I could easily conjure up regrets from my past, I was in the midst of the most shameful of them: that I was borrowing $44,000 for this degree. I’d read a guidebook about MFA programs that made the analogy of borrowing money for an MFA to borrowing money to finance a car.
“Yeah,” my mother said. “But where’s the car?”
Living inside a regret was awkward. I loved my MFA, but how I chose to finance it began to haunt me. I was a recovering alcoholic who understood what it looked like to bottom out on my drinking, but bottoming out on debt was more nebulous.
When drinking, I fooled myself by always finding friends whose drinking appeared worse than mine. I dated a woman who could knock back 14, 15 beers in one evening, which surely made the eight or nine beers I consumed nightly looked manageable. In this same way, I tried to compare myself only to people who had more debt than I had. My debt consisted of money borrowed for my undergraduate degree, a credit card that yo-yoed between being maxed out and being nearly maxed out, and now, the money borrowed for an MFA. Friends who were lawyers or doctors dismissed my debt, saying they had borrowed double, triple what I owed. The difference was that they were lawyers. I was an overqualified administrative assistant at a nursery school with a master’s degree.
I grew up in a family where my grandparents played the Pennsylvania lottery every day. Money, I thought, was something you lucked into, especially if you wanted to be a writer, especially if you had debt. Even once sober, while other areas of my life improved, my relationship to money soured. I held my breath whenever I swiped my debit card, unsure if there was enough in my account to cover the transaction. Vagueness could be its own opiate. I didn’t know what I had, and I didn’t know how much money I needed to earn. I just told myself that this is what it must be like to be a writer in New York.
I still obsess over the path I chose to get my MFA, knowing what it could have been otherwise. What would it…