'School Loans Weren’t Just a Choice; They Were a Necessity'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Mary in Pennsylvania has a new and crucial perspective to share:

This is in response to the recent reader note “Taking on Student Loan Debt Is a CHOICE.” Guess what? Like Kirsten, I’m tired of hearing about school loan debt, too. But I’m also in the middle of the experience.

Although taking on debt from student loans was a choice, my other options were not realistically viable. See, I was raised in poverty, and I was still in poverty when I started at a community college as a twenty-something adult working in a dead-end job and raising my three kids as a divorced mom. There was no drunken partying until the wee hours of the morning, or blowing off classes that Mommy and Daddy paid for. Try juggling three kids, one of whom was in diapers and child care, a job and a full schedule of college classes, complete with homework and labs. Without those loans that I “chose” to take out, I would likely still be working for minimum wage and living in poverty.

There was no lavish lifestyle during college as a result of my school loans; those loans paid for tuition and books, and also allowed us to barely survive while I was in school and working. To give a good idea of what our life was like WITH school loans and me working, we still qualified for subsidized housing, food stamps, and child care, and medical assistance, as well as free lunches at school for the two older kids. Poverty. We’re talking poverty here.

Although I graduated 16 years ago, I am still paying on my school loans (via the Income Based Repayment Plan). Today, I have a middle-class job (which would not have been possible without my degree), but I will be paying off school loans until I die, as I am almost 50 years old and haven’t even paid off half of the balance.

Incidentally, as a former teen mom who dropped out of high school and later got my GED so I could go to college, it’s likely my kids would have followed in my less-than-stellar footsteps back then. Because of my struggles with going to college while raising my kids, they learned through some of my examples. Education became VERY important in our household. We all studied, we all went to class, and took classes seriously. Education was our way out of the life we had back then.

As a result, all three of my children graduated from high school, none were teen parents or involved in the judicial system, two are college degreed, and one is serving in the Air Force. Would that have happened without me going to college? Maybe, but statistically unlikely.

So school loans weren’t just a choice, they were a necessity—not only for me, but for my three children as well. Without it, we would not have survived.