My $60,000 Ivy League Degree Was Just a Pyramid Scheme

When I was deciding whether to accept the invitation to a graduate program at Columbia University, cost was one of the main factors I weighed. But whenever I mentioned this fact to someone older than me, they waved it off. I was assured over and over again that everyone has debt; that it's not a big deal — often with a wink and a reassuring pat on the arm.

It was like looming debt was my invitation to adulthood, and losing sleep over it was my RSVP.

As much as adding $60,000 to the $30,000 I already owed from undergrad made me nauseous, I took everyone's word for the fact that it was worth it, that this was my future we were talking about; that no price should stand in the way of education. I signed the promissory notes, I showed up to class on the first day, and every day after that.

Now it’s two months after graduation. I have an Ivy League master's degree, but I certainly don't feel $60,000 smarter. In fact, I feel a bit like I’ve snapped out of the piper’s trance, only after stepping off the cliff.

I would be perfectly happy getting by on what I could make freelancing, maybe picking up the occasional bartending shift. But Sallie Mae seems to think that starting in four months when my comically inadequate grace period ends, I’ll be making thousand-dollar payments every month. So living the ascetic life of a creative young adult is not an option. I’ll have to get a real job — probably not even the kind of job I paid so much to be qualified for — just to keep up with the interest.

There’s a debate going on about student debt in Washington and in newsrooms across the country. Some say it’s the next big bubble, following closely in the footsteps of the mortgage crisis, just waiting for the right moment to kick the economy in the teeth as it struggles to stand up after the beating it just took.

Others echo the deluded reassurance I got before grad school — that debt is just a part of life; that it’s nothing to worry about.

The fact is, while that might have once been the case, the nature of student debt is changing, as tuition costs climb unchecked into the clouds, and the job market maintains its resemblance to a pit of starving dogs clamoring for one pitiful cut of meat. Politicians need to see that it’s changed, but just as importantly, young people laying the foundation for the rest of their lives need to know that it’s changed.

In 1990, the average student loan debt in this country was $8,200. By 2010, that figure had more than tripled, to $25,250 according to a report by the Institute for College Access & Success. And only half of the people who graduated college in the last five years are employed full-time, according to a recent Rutgers University study. So with the buy-in ever increasing and not enough jobs to go around on the other end, higher education is looking less like an investment and more like a pyramid scheme.

This is not to say that Americans should stop striving toward a good education. There’s still an argument to be made for education for its own sake, and, for those who can find work, salaries are still generally higher for people with degrees. But it is time for people to accept that it’s a new economic landscape in America, and that the ivory tower is insufficient shelter from this particular storm.

I already took the dive, so I’ll just have to do my best to swim, with $90,000 in debt clasped to my ankles. But I can, as someone in the middle of a head-on collision with reality, urge others to take a little more time to consider what they’re really signing up for when they take those loans.

By all means, go to college. But do it as cheaply as you can. If a prestigious name on your diploma is important to you, consider at least starting out at a state school, and then transferring somewhere more impressive (read: expensive). And don’t borrow more than you absolutely need to cover tuition and get by – remember that you may well be paying interest on that for decades to come.

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Lilly O'Donnell

Lilly O'Donnell is a freelance writer, currently working on her first book.

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