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Tales of a Student Loan Survivor

John Tarleton Sep 25, 2012

$124.90. Payment Due: August 1.

That’s how much I owed Chemical Bank of New York for my July 1991 student loan payment. I already had four other months of these bills that I hadn’t paid yet. Looking ahead, I owed the same sum every month for what appeared to be the rest of the eternity. Default seemed inevitable.

This was a moment I had pushed out of my mind from the time I signed my first student loan forms five years earlier at the age of 19. I was carrying almost $15,000 in debt (or, about $25,000 in present-day money). My loans made it possible for me to earn a degree from one of the best journalism schools in the country. But a year out of college, I realized I didn’t want to be a conventional journalist writing for a Midwestern daily. So, I ditched the mainstream career I had been groomed for and decided to become a vagabond, hitchhiking and traveling across the United States and down into Latin America — reading, writing, learning a second language, listening to the stories of people I met from all walks of life.

I soon ran out of money and butted up against a double dilemma — how to earn enough dough to maintain my new itinerant lifestyle while also figuring out what to do about those pesky loans. I found myself grappling with the same mix of fear, helplessness and shame that grips millions of young people today who are overwhelmed by the student loan debts they face.

Difficult Choices

Walking away from my debts was tempting. After all, I didn’t want to live my life just to be a source of easy profits for fat cat bankers. But what would happen to my parents who were the co-signers on my loans? They were already being bombarded by calls from bill collectors who were trying to find me. And, what would become of my younger brother’s chances of going to college? He had a right to live his dreams too.

My wanderings in the summer of ‘91 took me far up the coast of Maine to the home of the wild blueberry where I decided to become a migrant fruit picker. Growers were paying 12 cents a pound (or, $240 a ton) for workers to scoop the berries off bushes that sprawled inches off the ground across whole fields. Fired by hopes of quick riches and bent over in the blazing sun like medieval serfs, we gathered the harvest.

The work was brutal but I found I enjoyed it and the hardscrabble men and women who were drawn to such a setting. By the end of the month, I was caught up on my student loan payments and then some. I then headed over to Vermont to pick apples during the fall and use those earnings to finance another round of adventures.

I returned again and again to the migrant fields, gradually paying off my student loans by harvesting 60 tons of blueberries over eight summers. At the age of 31, I was debt-free.

Present Day

Fast forward to the present day. I have been able to put my formal education as well as the life experience gained from years of traveling to good use — first as a co-founder of The Indypendent and now as a labor journalist for one of the most progressive unions in the city. But when I look around I see family incomes stagnating while the cost of college tuition is soaring. Student loan debt nationally has topped a trillion dollars and millions of young people are struggling to pay back loans in an economy in which temp work and unpaid internships are increasingly the norm and good jobs are scarce. And if you want to run off and work the blueberry harvest? Good luck. Most of the work is now done by mechanical harvesters.

Besides the financial burdens imposed by student loan debt, it is also lamentable that few of today’s college graduates have the luxury of being outwardly aimless, of doing whatever feels right and for the first time not trying to please or impress anyone – neither parents, nor teachers nor a prospective employer. It takes a certain amount of social privilege to graduate from college and feel you are entitled to search for your own truths instead of searching for a steady job, but if don’t do it in your 20s, when will you?

Outside the Box

I wince when I read comments from crotchety conservatives saying in effect, “I had to suffer with my student loans and so should you.”

People, let’s think outside the box. We live in a society of great abundance in which most of the new wealth that has been created over the past 30 years has been captured by the 1 percent. In turn, we live under a regime of artificial scarcity in which the resources needed for education, health care and other public goods are denied us.

For young people who are repeatedly exhorted to invest in their future but lack the “start-up capital” needed to pay for a college education, this means entering into a system of debt peonage.

The Mitt Romneys of the world did not earn their hoarded gold. Let’s tax them heavily the way we still did 40 years ago when quality public education was still broadly affordable. And while we’re at it let’s downsize our bloated military ($661 billion per year) and end the war in Afghanistan which clocks in at $111 billion a year. We could use these resources to provide first-rate public higher education free of charge to everyone who wants it.

This isn’t on the agenda of our political elites but a resurgence of mass movements like Occupy Wall Street (itself fueled last year by indebted people from all walks of life) can change that calculus. Finding the wild blueberry helped me solve my individual problem but the only real solution to the student debt crisis lies in collective action.