10/01/2010 05:56 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Epic Fail

Default, n.
1. Failure of something, want, defect.
a. Absence (of something wanted); want, lack, scarcity of.
b. Lack of food or other necessity; want, poverty.
c. A failure in being perfect; an imperfection, defect, blemish, flaw.
2. Failure in performance.

Well, the Oxford English Dictionary seems to have it covered as far as all the things I think and feel about possible default. Sharp dip in self-respect, check. Feeling of misery and failure, check. Enormous ego blow leading to sadness and despair, check. Experience of want and poverty, check. And of course, fear of impending recurrences of default, check times a billion. Student loans: once my saving grace, when I had a rosy and swelling hope that the outcome of my education would be filled with wonder and enough money to pay bills; now, the single largest black hole that keeps sucking away my money. Oh, and there has been neither wonder nor enough money.

Before I go on, a caveat. To all my professorial friends and colleagues: I realize that I just began this entry with a definition. After begging my own students to eschew this practice for so many years, I have myself committed the vulgar "Webster's Dictionary defines X as" transgression. I would point out that the definition is central to my discussion of student loans and that the top of the page is the best place to ensure that readers get the idea straightaway, but I would only be echoing my poor students' defense against my terror-inducing pen. Anyway, on with my hypocrisy.

A friend of mine and I were trading very long and angry posts about the student loan racket the other day, and she inspired me with some words I feel I need to share here. I quote: "What I want to know is WHERE WERE THE RESPONSIBLE ADULTS WHEN I WAS SIGNING MY LIFE AWAY??? All this tisk tisking [sic.] now that we are screwed for life is completely useless and totally and utterly cruel. " Emphasis totally hers, of course. I think her question, caps and all, gets to the heart of this whole problem. We were, as she says, "sold" on this idea, by seemingly mature and accomplished adults, that the loans are in investment in your future--in other words, as I understand basic economics, you will reap returns plenty large enough to pay off any insignificant amount (/sarc) you owe to the federal government. No worries, the interest rates are WAY low and they won't make you pay if you absolutely can't. You can get forbearance, or you can pay interest only, or you can even start paying before you graduate. They're only looking out for you!

Well, the road to default is paved with good intentions.

Now, instead of "Don't worry, you'll graduate soon and be able to pay this off," or "Sure, I'll cosign for you since it's for your education," it's "How in the world did you get so much student loan debt?" and "Oh, you'll have to work the rest of your life to pay that off!" Well, duh!! I've written before about what it's like to get behind on bills, and everyone knows about the debt vortex: You get behind one month, which turns into two, and then you have to pay three payments at once, and so on. Pulling yourself out of that hole is a lot like physically pulling yourself up over a flat ledge (a terrible ordeal involving strained muscles and fatigue). And there's nothing like late fees, either--in some cases, a couple months of late fees can turn into more than a whole month's payment, and at that point your payment plan has reached the realm of the absurd.

My point is that those of us who are close to default, or are just stretching a dollar so thin that it's transparent, feel like we've been had. Perhaps calling the system a racket is a little disingenuous. Don't worry, I'm not going to look up any more definitions, but I just want to declare that while I complain about owing so much money, I know how important student loans are to people who cannot pay for a degree in cash. Without loans, my husband and I could not have gone to grad school, during which I confess I learned the value of dusty old books and academic politics. But I can't escape the fact that I and millions of other graduates feel like we've just been informed that the new and exciting investment opportunity that promised big returns in exchange for very little input is, in fact, a Ponzi scheme. Way to fail, student loan machine (OED). Or is the fail partly ours?

To be continued.