When Alex, my elder child, who identifies as nonbinary, was ready to apply for college in 2022, I felt ill-equipped to help them navigate the process. I was raised in a low-income household and had been unprepared to figure out how to make my own college experience affordable.
I have been a single parent for 17 years. I have never earned enough income to have to make payments on my student loans, which total $81,000 for two degrees. I assumed I would carry the debt to my grave.
Alex is neurodivergent — their brain processes differently than what is considered to be typical for a majority of people — so we looked for schools that centered hands-on learning, where they would have a better chance of succeeding. We landed on the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. The application of the Western Undergraduate Exchange — an agreement among various public colleges in the West — reduced the annual out-of-state tuition costs to $13,000 from $29,000. But even after financial aid was applied, the remaining cost of attendance came to $15,500 per year.
Alex’s financial aid package included $5,500 in federal student loans — the maximum that freshmen can take out. The rest was designated to me in the form of Parent PLUS loans, which allows parents to borrow money directly from the federal government. I was floored. After filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, my expected family contribution was zero. How could the school and the loan carrier know I didn’t have money and still approve me for a debt of $40,000 over four years?
By researching Parent PLUS loans, I learned that the parent alone carries the debt, there are fewer forgiveness options than other federal student loans and the loans carry a current interest rate of 8.05 percent. There was no way I could sign. I’m a renter, and until two years ago, I didn’t have a retirement account. So instead of taking out Parent PLUS loans, I secured a private loan with a much lower interest rate through my credit union. Although I had to co-sign, Alex was designated the primary borrower.
Alex understood that this was the only option to pay for college, but as they struggled to adjust to college life in the years following the start of the pandemic, the debt began to weigh on them. This led them to drop out of college after two trimesters.
Though they have $7,000 in loans to pay off from their short stint, Alex knew the implications of accumulating even more debt over the course of four years. I did my best to alleviate their worries, but my own student loan debt wasn’t reassuring. Alex believed that, even with a minimum wage job, they could pay off their debt and continue to support themself with jobs that didn’t require a degree.
Alex is not alone in this belief. Because of the combined costs of tuition and living expenses, some young people have opted to delay, drop out of or forgo attending college all together to avoid student debt that could hang over them for decades. A recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit provider of educational reporting, showed that freshman enrollment declined by 3.6 percent last fall, reversing recent gains. In addition, the share of students who left college without a degree rose to 40.4 million as of July 2021.
Though Americans are questioning the value of college, research shows that people with college degrees typically earn nearly 75 percent more than those without them. Jobs that require a degree also often come with a range of benefits: flexible schedules, paid time off and sick and parental leave.
But there is no clear path toward those benefits. Michele Shepard, senior director of college affordability at the Institute for College Access & Success, said that while she still has faith in the value of a college degree, obtaining one is becoming increasingly inaccessible.
“If you just look at the amount of college costs that are covered by Pell Grants, it used to cover about 80 percent of the average cost of a four-year degree in the late 1970s, and now it covers 25 percent,” Ms. Shepard said.
For much of her life, Soleil Revell’s mother, Reina Fernandez, was a single parent working multiple jobs while raising her children on a tight budget. When it came time for Ms. Revell to go to college, a small university in her hometown in New Mexico was the most affordable option. The state offers a scholarship that covers tuition and is available to in-state residents enrolling in college right after high school who meet certain criteria. Ms. Revell took advantage of this option by going to New Mexico Highlands University and living at home to save money.
But when the pandemic hit, trying to keep up with online classes and the pressures of family life became too difficult for her. Ms. Revell lost her scholarship after her grade point average dipped, which left her owing $2,700 to the school. She dropped out after a year and a half and moved to Albuquerque in 2021, where she now waits tables full time and has a part-time job creating social media posts for a car dealership. She said that, given the loss of the scholarship, she would have accumulated $20,000 debt if she had stayed in school.
“I was really driven to go to school in the beginning, but after I took a break, I kind of lost that drive,” Ms. Revell, 23, said. “My mom told me not to take a break because it’s going to be a lot harder to go back, but I was just really burned out.”
In addition to her bills, Ms. Revell has some medical debt. She has recently learned that a friend’s employer is considering removing a degree requirement for potential new hires, so she plans to apply. It’s a work-from-home job that pays more than her current role. Ms. Revell said a remote position would allow her to pick up more social media gigs.
Her plan is to save enough to cover the costs of rent and tuition so that when she returns to school, she can do so without going into debt. She hopes to study psychology at the University of New Mexico.
Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, says it can be difficult for students to go back to college later if they’ve dropped out.
“For adults, it’s really clear that going back to college has a lot to do with unemployment,” Ms. Baum said. “But when the economy is strong, when employment is strong, then you just get a job.”
A Military Alternative
Maria Han, 20, has just entered the third year of her contract with the U.S. Navy. Because of an unstable home life, she moved in with a classmate when she was 16. While in high school, Ms. Han was enrolled in an accelerated program that would have helped her earn an entry-level nursing degree by the time she graduated from high school in 2021. But because she was estranged from her parents, she did not have the resources to cover the $1,500 in fees for the program.
Instead, she took interest in joining the Navy as an option to pay for college when recruiters came to her school. Ms. Han is stationed in O‘ahu, Hawaii, after spending two years training to become a fire controlman. She says that, through the Navy, she has multiple options to complete a college degree or receive training in a trade. One option is to have the full cost of college attendance covered by extending her contract for five additional years. Another is to complete her current contract, which runs through 2027, and have tuition costs covered by the G.I. Bill of Rights when her time is up.
At this point, Ms. Han doesn’t think she’ll extend her contract. “I feel like the schooling part of the Navy kind of gave me a false picture of what was going to actually happen,” she said. “Then I went on my boat that I’m on right now, and it was a big reality check. Like, it’s just a little bit more scary than I thought it was going to be.”
For Ms. Han, confinement on the ship paired with limited connectivity to friends back home and a steep learning curve even after basic training made the transition more challenging than she expected.
Still, Ms. Han says she doesn’t know what she would have done without the Navy and that there are a lot of other people on her boat who feel the same. “Some people were homeless and they joined the Navy, and it gave them an opportunity to start their life again,” Ms. Han said.
Challenges and Opportunities
There are few options for people who don’t have sufficient income, savings or financial aid to pay for college, said Laura Perna, an expert on college affordability, access and success at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. “You can borrow what’s available to borrow, or you can work more hours for pay, and both of those have different types of consequences,” she said.
While attending community college is often touted as the easiest, most affordable choice for those who can’t pay higher prices to go elsewhere, it is not always a solution, especially in places where there are no local options. In addition, some four-year institutions do not accept credits from community college classes.
Ms. Perna believes free tuition programs are an important step toward reconsidering education costs and who is responsible for paying them.
“State governments have a role in funding public higher education through appropriations and financial aid,” Ms. Perna said. “The federal government has a role, especially through the Pell Grant. Government should have a role if you know there are so many public benefits of higher education, in addition to those ways that individual participants benefit. And so I think I’m hopeful that we can have some kind of rethinking on this. Because higher education matters.”
Alex, my older child, is 20 now, and they work in ecological monitoring earning $15 an hour. It’s a field they are interested in, and they see some limited paths toward career advancement. But they don’t see a clear path to financial security.
Part of this, no doubt, comes from them watching me continue to struggle financially even after earning a master’s degree. In Alex’s view, if they’re going to be living paycheck-to-paycheck because of the debt they’ll need to pay off from obtaining a degree, they would rather avoid the debt and earn what they can without a degree.
They understand that this route will still leave them living with fewer means, but they prefer it to the one that comes with the financial and mental weight of enormous student loan debt.
After so many years of watching me struggle, Alex finally had the opportunity to witness some relief: In December, my loans were finally forgiven through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. I don’t know if the program will last or if Alex will ever need it, but I hope it’s one of many solutions that could help make college more accessible for everyone.