For me, the term “student debt” is a bit like the terms “April Job Reports” or “Higgs Boson.” While each of these things is arguably important to my life, their complexity and psychological distance from my day-to-day make them basically inscrutable. The appearance of any one of these terms in a news article is correlated with a high probability that I skip over it in the morning paper.
The way in which student debt is presented in the national conversation further distances the issue: it is associated with the University of Phoenix, the United States’ declining economic vigor or some kind of newfangled White House initiative. The average student loan in the United States last year was around $30,000, and the typical Yale student is not the kind of kid linked to concerns over this growing figure.
But I hope to change that. To the question, “What does student debt look like at Yale?” I propose the following answer: It looks a lot like me. I’m a FroCo in Pierson. I buy a lot of Blue State coffee. I own an iPhone and Lululemon running tights. As a senior, my time is fast winding down in New Haven, and while I’m not yet sure where I will be next fall, I do know the following: When I graduate from Yale in a few weeks, I will be in debt to the tune of $75,000 in student loans.
I find the radio silence on the issue of student debt among Yale students and administrators to be fascinating. Yalies are eager to analyze the details of minor issues — from society tap to Yale College Council elections — hemming and hawing over their possible impact on the “Yale student experience.” Yet as a campus, we are both unwilling, and often times unequipped, to have serious conversations about an issue that could place major strains on a student’s past, present and far future mental health, relationships and life choices.
The University makes us sit through numerous workshops on alcohol and physical safety, yet we get no mandatory trainings about financial planning. Phrases like “need-based financial aid” and “no undue financial hardship” are tossed around at Yale information sessions to prospective students, but students rarely hear much about managing finances after that. Freshman counselors are taught strategies to sidestep awkward conversations about money with their freshmen, and friend groups simply don’t talk about it.
Typically, I keep no secrets from my best friends at Yale — we laugh over Snapchats sent from the bathroom, and I cried to them when my grandfather passed away in November. Yet when student debt recently came up in conversation, and I volunteered the size of my own loans, the information was met by stunned silence. We are eager to judge people for choosing finance or consulting, accusing them of selling out, yet we are profoundly uncomfortable talking about financial realities. At least in my experience, I find that even conversations about sexual assault policies are easier to have at Yale.
A Yale education is supposed to be like a jet pack, propelling you up to higher and better things. At least in my family, education has always been the means of chasing the American Dream. My paternal grandparents, first generation Korean immigrants, lived on 8 Mile (the same place that produced Eminem) in Detroit, and at one point they owned a convenience store. My maternal grandmother, a single mom, raised my own mom and my aunt in a tiny apartment in Queens, N.Y. My parents worked hard and went to MIT; mom worked for many years as a software engineer and my dad is a physician. My parents’ sacrifices for their children have been immense, and while I am grateful for their support, sometimes I wonder whether it was worth it. My parents currently have three college-age children, and two more still at home. Is it possible for the costs of education to spell ruin?
It may be the case that I am an anomaly, but as an aside, how indebted is the average Yale student actually? Despite neat figure quotes on the Yale Financial Aid website, I feel like I don’t actually know, as the College counts “loans” as aid “awards.”
In one sense, I hope this serves as a call for greater dialogue, particularly for prospective members of the class of 2018. To these potential Bulldogs, I recommend sitting down with your parents — and if you’re able, financial aid officers — and asking them to have a frank conversation about finances and feasibility. I have deeply loved my time at Yale, but hope that for future generations of Yalies the same experience will not, in the words of Shakepeare’s Shylock, come at the price of a pound of flesh.
I am discouraged when I think about my loans, which were incurred with a decision I made when I was 17, the decision to enroll at my dream school. My decision to come to Yale will influence how I decide subsequent steps in life, from going to grad school to taking a new job and deciding to start a family. But hopefully, that won’t be just because of my debt.
Emily Hong is a senior in Pierson College. Contact her at email@example.com.