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Waitin’ on the Student Debt Jubilee

In the meantime, maybe don't repay your loans.

Welcome to The Baffler’s agony corner, YOUR SORRY ASS, where Amber A’Lee Frost dispenses bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor. Send us your rants and pleas, please: [email protected].

Dear Your Sorry Ass,

I was recently given a wonderful opportunity that I can’t really afford to accept. I applied for a master’s program in London, and I found out that I got in, but I received none of the funding I wanted. It’s a one-year master’s program in anthropology at a prestigious school, and it would cost less overall than getting a similar degree in the U.S. It’s also been a (somewhat childish) dream of mine to go to school in the U.K. for a long time. And I’m itching to go back to school. (I’m about to hit the two-year mark since graduating college.) I like my current job just fine, but there isn’t much opportunity for advancement, and I’m ready to try something else. Also, this degree program relates to my undergrad thesis—and to what I’d like to do later in life—but it’s not strictly necessary for anything. I’m also considering law school in the future, which means still more debt. I love school, and I’m a huge nerd.

An extra $30K or so in debt could potentially do a lot of damage to the material condition of my life down the line.

I know that I want to attend this program. I suspect that I’ll learn a lot, and that I’ll enjoy the experience immensely. I think that moving abroad and learning how to observe and understand others might make me a better person and a better advocate for others in the future. I also suspect that, you know, since it’s not a STEM or professional degree, it won’t do much for the material condition of my life down the line. In fact, an extra $30K or so in debt could potentially do a lot of damage to the material condition of my life down the line. Of course, it’s impossible to know exactly how hard it will be to pay this off, but I intend to work in public interest fields for most of my life, so I’m assuming that my salary will never be anything to write home about. I’m angry that I can’t pursue the education I need to make a difference in the world (and also survive) without forgoing a career path that would allow me to do good.

But here’s the other thing. Isn’t the world kind of going to hell anyway? Call me melodramatic, but ever since the election I’ve been feeling like I better take opportunities as they come because the future isn’t as sure as we all thought. I’m not saying that I foresee WWIII or the coming of the long-overdue revolution or the U.S. descending into a Trumpian theocracy under martial law. But I am saying that I feel like it might not be worth it to sacrifice what I really want in the name of making prudent financial decisions when the terms upon which those decisions are based could change. Or is that a stupid thing I’m just telling myself to justify this decision?

Anyway. I’m trying to decide which pact is more Faustian: Do I follow my dream of becoming a highly educated public interest attorney at the very real risk of becoming a pauper for the rest of my life? Or do I avoid the risk in order to live a more secure life that isn’t the one I want? I know I’m far from alone in this dilemma. Please help.


I Hate Capitalism


Dear Hater,

Ah, the promising opportunity of Higher Education! The potential to (maybe) pursue a meaningful vocation at the low, low price of a hovering debt that bullies you into a life of oppressive compromise! I sympathize with your plight very deeply, Hater. I remember doing the math as a senior in high school; even with my meager scholarship, job, and low-cost satellite campus, I knew I would come out with heavy debt. And, as it happened, I came out with even more than I anticipated after using loans for incidentals like car repair and rent.

When I answered the robo-call from Sallie Mae, I ended up screaming and deciding to just not pay.

Initially I tried paying the loans back. Then I was unemployed and couldn’t. Then I was barely employed and sort of could, but was usually behind. Then one day I was waiting for my boyfriend to call back and, thinking it was him, answered a robo-call from Sallie Mae (normally I was good about screening). I ended up screaming to an unfeeling recording and deciding to just…not pay. I actually changed my phone number.

Frequently, when people denounce the onerous grift that is student loans, the point to the vulnerability and naivety of youth—“How can you expect a young person to understand how much debt they’re taking on?!?” I believe this argument is wrongheaded. First of all, I knew roughly how much I would be taking on because I never had the luxury of being naive about money. But more importantly, what is the alternative? Is the implication that if young people knew how much college was going to cost them they would just wisely decide not to follow their dreams and expand their minds? That they would say “Oh wow, $20,000? Maybe I’ll just stay in my hometown instead.” Student loans aren’t unjust because kids are stupid, student loans are unjust because everyone deserves the chance at higher education.

Going to college was one of the better decisions of my life, but deciding not to pay back the loans was an even better one. Of course, now I can’t even get a credit card—and they garnish my wages—but I can tell you from experience that I have zero regrets. It was 100 percent worth it to be able to move on with my life, and there is no way I’d have the rewarding career in bossiness I have today if I hadn’t both gone to school and told Sallie Mae to fuck off. If you can handle the hit to your credit I absolutely recommend the “Come get it, motherfuckers!” approach to student loan repayment. I mean what are they gonna do? Take away your birthday?

If you really truly have a burning desire to go to grad school, just go to grad school—but only for that reason because grad school is not a particularly good investment these days. Worry about payment later. Maybe you’ll get lucky and land a job where you can pay it all back! Maybe there will be a revolution and a jubilee on debt! Maybe we’ll go to war with Canada and it won’t matter! The only thing you know for sure is that you want this. Besides, the regret of missed opportunity is so much more heartbreaking than the regret of reckless pursuit of one’s passions.

So go to school, you nerd!

Want some Sorry Ass advice from The Baffler? Send your gripes and conundrums to Amber Frost at [email protected].