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College Debt: A State of "Indentured Servitude"

Posted: 02/22/10 12:36 AM ET

I hold a BS (International Relations, 2001) from the University of Wisconsin as well as a Master's (Public Administration, 2005) from Columbia University. My parents paid for most of my undergraduate costs, but I still managed to take out close to $80,000 in student loans for my undergraduate and graduate education. During that time, I think it's important to note that I also held side jobs around 20-30 hours a week for personal spending and "beer money."

Starting in college I signed up for three credit cards to finance travel and other living costs during a couple of full-time, unpaid summer internships around the country -- all to get that requisite "experience" that supposedly helps the chances of a job out of college. My first job ended up being an environmental technician in Los Angeles; work that primarily involved dragging heavy equipment through asbestos and lead-laden crawlspaces. My salary barely broke $35,000; not enough to live and pay down my college debt effectively. Thus, after two years, I returned to graduate school at Columbia -- an opportunity that I felt could not be missed.

Even after my one-year graduate program, I incurred $75,000 in new student loan debt. I consolidated my loans, and believed that some soon-to-be-had job would allow for a relatively modest payoff time. Initially, I had to take low-paying contracting positions just to get by. I had no health insurance. Even with the help of school career centers and networking events, it took nearly two years to find a 'real' job; a startup consulting firm with a bad habit of casually missing pay days.

Needless to say the consulting job didn't work out. I eventually moved to San Francisco where I currently work in a more stable position with the state. Two years in, I am still frustrated by lack of mobility and career development options. My income allows for minimum payments on my loans and credit cards every month, but since graduating, almost 10% has been added to the original principal of my graduate student loans. My total debt stands at $91,897 -- still way more than I make in a year. This, coupled with the recession and San Francisco's high cost-of-living, leave me feeling I am living some form of what one recent article described as "indentured servitude" -- all for following a respectable career pursuit and excellent academic opportunities despite relatively little honest financial payoff.

What have I learned during this process? I still can't say I know what I want to do. The old conventional wisdom -- work hard and stay in school -- no longer applies. It belongs to a different, dying economic age that spanned the last half of the 20th century. Those pursuing a substantial level of higher education should take time and dig deep to find what really drives your work ethic and makes your intellect tick. Push back hard on those who tell you that you must choose a major now, or even that you need to go to college in the first place. Why not become a trade apprentice, take a broad swath of Gen Ed classes, or perhaps leave on a gap year?! I think there should be a new conventional wisdom -- work smart; discover, and then pursue your passion -- a statement more in line with the marathon that life is and one that will hopefully save people a lot of money.