Student Debt: Yours, Mine, and Ours

          College debt has become a predominant concern for young adults in America. It prevents them from starting families, buying houses, working at jobs they like. I was fortunate but remember well the financial concerns that attended my own university experience.

Neither I nor my parents could afford my college tuition and expenses, but I did not have to take out a loan to enroll. I had scholarships, but there was a catch. To get the university money I also had to work. I was assigned to be a waiter in the dining halls for freshmen and sophomores. This was a plum job because it paid better than some other possibilities, but I still did not like it.

          I don’t think I resented too much that none of my half-dozen roommates had to work, but that may have been part of it. However, an early morning shift that required me to get up at 5:30 was irksome, especially since almost no one came to eat that early. And weekend work, when I wanted to go to a football or basketball game or go into New York or had just the teeny tiniest hangover, never pleased me.

          I also objected to some of the serving practices that we had to follow. I had no problem with any rule that aided efficiency or hygiene but there were others. For example, we brought out food for an entire communal table of eight or ten once all the seats were taken. That made sense. We carried it out on a serving tray of the kind you have seen many times. That made sense. We had to carry it above our left shoulder. That made sense so that the waiter traffic in the corridors and hallways would not have clashing trays. We had to carry that tray with only our left hand, ideally without resting it on the shoulder. The right had could not be used to steady the tray. That did not make sense. A steadying right hand did not impede efficiency or hygiene. It could, in fact, make things safer. But we could not use the right hand without getting demerits. I was just fine at this requirement and don’t remember any problems carrying the tray in the prescribed manner, but the rule was stupid and was yet another reason not to like the job. (Of course, now I watch waiters and bus boys (persons?) carry similar trays, and I feel superior when they use both hands.)

          In my upper-class years, I continued to work, but now as a research assistant to professors. However, college costs had gone up; I did not get more scholarship money; and I took out loans. The amount was not high, but it meant that I was graduating with debt. This affected my law school choice.

          My classmates tended to agree that there were two top law schools, but if given the choice between them, they picked the one in New Haven. I believe that nineteen of us were admitted to both of the top two, and seventeen picked the smaller one, and one enrolled at the Cambridge school.

          I had some considerations different from others. I had grown up in a small town and had gone to college in a small town. I wanted to experience a big city, and Cambridge was next to Boston, and Boston almost qualified as a big, meaningful city. My first choice, then, was Cambridge. In addition, however, the college debt I had incurred gave me another consideration.

          I did not anticipate coming out of law school going into a job that made much money. I expected that I would never represent corporations or want to, and I remained true to that expectation. I was going to, if not save the world, make it a lot better and this was not, I correctly surmised, going to make me a billionaire. (Look around, though; I don’t think the world is “a lot better” either.) I was concerned about graduating with heavy law school debt that would affect my employment decision; I might have to take employment I did not want because it paid well in order to pay off the loans.

          Just as for college, I needed financial aid, and the aid packages offered by a law school were important to me. So when the admission packets came, I looked carefully at the financials on offer. The favored-by-most-but-not-by-me school offered a sizeable scholarship along with a small loan obligation. The-near-to-a-big-city school offered me a half-tuition scholarship with the rest of the tuition covered by a loan, and I apparently would have to work quite a few hours to pay living expenses. I expected the law school expenses would go up while I was there, as college expenses had, and the loans would grow.

          On the other hand, the law school in Chicago was offering much more in scholarship aid than the other two. A college counselor on law schools had told me that this was an excellent school with a faculty equally as fine as the other two. I was neither an eastern snob nor fearful of the Midwest as were many of my classmates (I had grown up there after all), and knowing that my debt would be smallest in Chicago with the most freedom to accept whatever work I wanted upon graduation, I became perhaps the only one in my college ever to go off to Illinois instead of Massachusetts or Connecticut.

(continued May 18)