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College's Catch-22

Posted: 09/06/11 01:47 PM ET

My parents didn't have the opportunity to go to college and were delighted when I decided to attend UC-Berkeley to study cognitive science. Although I received grants and scholarships, I still had to take out loans to help pay for living costs. I wish that I had thought about work-study, additional scholarships, or a part-time job, but I was only 18 years old. I hadn't a clue what I was doing, and my parents were too busy working to do any diligent research themselves. There was nobody evaluating the wiseness of the decisions my family and I made, and no one making sure I actually understood the borrowing process.

I currently owe around $23,000 not including interest and Parent PLUS loans, which my mother is still generously paying off. She is 60 years old and works 11 to 12 hour days selling flooring, which her employers pay on commission and only if no mistakes are made. She can't retire because she has to help me pay back my loans, and she won't let me pay the PLUS loans myself. It's very frustrating.

Since graduating in 2009, I've worked a number of jobs in an attempt to find my passion as a research assistant in both medical and experimental settings, as a musician, and most recently as a user researcher in the San Francisco technology community. My dream would be to apply for a fellowship like Teach For America and focus on writing and music in my spare time, but I'm reluctant to take any big leaps that require additional investment from my family. I simply can't afford to do anything other than what I am doing now.

I live in the Bay Area, one of the most expensive regions in the country. To make ends meet, my friends and I have come up with some creative ways to budget. I currently live in a warehouse with seven people and one bathroom; my rent is still about $400/month (my friend that sleeps in a windowless closet only pays $200/month). I have a couple of friends that play piano at BART stations so they can pay their rent. Another friend has been sleeping on our couch for a year, struggling to find a decent job. Did I mention we graduated from Berkeley?

Our current education system is frustrating because it is a Catch-22: to make enough money, we need to have an education, but to get that education, we need enough money. If we don't have that money, we have to go into debt. I've been lucky enough to have a number of teachers, family members, and mentors who inspired me over the past 24 years by telling me that I have what it takes to be successful and do great things for society. It seems strange that because I want to contribute to society, I have to put my family into debt. I wish people like me had a better alternative.