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The New American Story in a Letter to an Ex-University President: Debt

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Dear Former Brandeis University President Reinharz,

Although we never met personally during my undergraduate career at Brandeis, you did sign a form letter for me once. I received it in November of my senior year, in 2009. In it, you expressed your sincere condolences during what must be a very difficult time for me.

It was a very difficult time. A few weeks previous to receiving your letter, I had watched my mother slowly and painfully lose her more than three-year battle with cancer. She was diagnosed during my freshman year at Brandeis with stage three inflammatory breast cancer and given a 5 percent chance of survival. But you didn't send me any letters back then. My financial aid package was quite adequate that year, fair even, for such an expensive school. After all, you can't run a prestigious top-tier university on nothing. My sister was finishing her senior year at Brown University as I began at Brandeis, and the double tuition was taken into account for my family. Of course, as an 18-year-old freshman, financial aid was often far from my thoughts, unreal even -- I was raised to believe that people get what they earn, that we are "compensated according to... accomplishments," as you stated in your interview with the Boston Globe. I was also raised to believe that's "the way America usually works." I had worked very hard in high school, balancing clubs, varsity sports, and academics, and when I got accepted into a top-tier school it was without question that I would go there. I had earned that acceptance letter with my accomplishments.

Once my mother got sick, financial aid was even further from my mind. I struggled during that first semester, getting extensions for work in almost all of my classes, refusing to accept that my mother could die, that she most likely would. Again, I was raised to believe people get what they earn, and my mother had lived a very healthy life. Healthy, middle-aged people shouldn't get cancer, and most certainly couldn't die from it; it didn't add up.

Then the financial crisis came, and there was a Ponzi-scheme scandal that robbed some of Brandeis' most generous financial donors of millions. Each year, my financial aid package diminished as my mother's medical costs rose. I remember my father telling me he had to take out a loan; I didn't ask for specifics or even consider transferring to a more affordable college -- I was too busy treading water, keeping up my day-to-day life, going to class, visiting my mom when I could, occasionally meeting up with her in Boston for her appointments at Dana Farber. Eventually, her cancer went into remission and I studied further, hopeful that her cancer story was over. But then, in 2009, my carefully recomposed world shattered. My mom used to make jokes about that X-ray showing her cancer had come back; she said her spine looked like a Christmas Tree, lit up all over.

I remember my father telling me he'd talked to the Financial Aid Office about mom, asking for more help in lieu of the circumstances. Medical costs were rising again and my mom was forced into early retirement, forced to accept a fraction of the retirement pay she had worked so many years at the Red Cross to earn. But the financial crisis was still strong, and although they were sorry, Brandeis' Financial Aid Office could do nothing to help us. The money simply wasn't there. I took out another loan, this one in my name.

My mother died on October 29th, 2009. I missed a week or two of class for the funeral, finally letting myself sink, rest after treading water for so long. I dropped one class and a minor in Politics, and somehow managed to graduate on time less than a year later.

I am now a 25-year-old woman from middle class "privilege" facing a crushing $60,000 of debt, with a 20-year loan repayment plan. I am still treading water each month, balancing multiple jobs. Is this how I am being "compensated" for my accomplishments, Mr. Reinharz? The worst part about my story is that it is not unique. I am one in the masses of 20-something college graduates struggling to pay for an education they could never afford. We were taught to believe that our degrees from prestigious universities would lead to financial success, that high-earning jobs would be waiting for us after we had worked so hard through college. "It's the way America usually works," you proclaimed in your interview. There may have been a time when America worked that way, but as long as increasingly generous "golden parachute" exit packages are being handed out to retiring university presidents instead of to financial aid offices, college tuition will continue to rise. There will be new generations of 20-something Americans struggling to make ends meet each month, rewarded with debt for their academic achievements.

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