Here’s What I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Racked Up $180,000 In Student Loan Debt

I just made the final payment on my private student loans.

This is not an article to be used as a talking point by conservatives looking for examples of folks who bootstrapped themselves through college. Nor is this an article in support of the blind call to abolish all student loan debt.

It’s a singular, detailed anecdote of one 37-year-old’s journey through his student debt. It is meant to inform any reader who is interested in the student loan debt conversation about its personal realities, and it is especially meant to be read by an audience of 17-year-olds and their parents who may be making decisions about college right now. Because so many of us have been told that we need to go to college. But hardly any of us has been given an example of the true cost of that choice. Many people barely consider the decision of whether or not to go to college at all before launching into the decision of which college to attend. Even then, the true financial cost (and eventual life costs) are rarely ever explained.

We don’t talk openly about money in our culture. We ask 17-year-olds to decide to spend huge sums of money that they don’t have without an understanding of what they’re getting in return or giving them any examples of the burden to which they’re attaching their signatures.

I will now give you my example. It is a success story and a cautionary tale all in one.

I made the final payment on my private student loans in December. When I graduated in 2006, I owed $115,157. Over the 15-year term, I paid as much as $1,299.91 a month for a grand total of $186,483.87 for my undergraduate education.

These are big numbers, but perhaps the one I want the 17-year-old reader to really look at is $1,299.91 per month. On the 19th of every month for the past 15 years, I’ve had to pay something close to this amount. (The exact amount varied with interest rates. The lowest monthly payment amount ever was $958.87 when rates were extremely low in 2015.) Take a look at the full payment schedule. Really look. Each month, each row, another payment. Trust me, Sallie Mae/Navient is worse than Paulie from “Goodfellas.” “Can’t find a job? Fuck you. Pay me.” “All of the entry-level jobs require experience? Fuck you. Pay me.” “You declared bankruptcy and all your other debt was washed away? Fuck you. Pay me.”

You might be thinking $1,300 ― that’s more than a rent payment or even That’s more than a mortgage payment. If you’re actually 17 years old, what you should be thinking is: How am I going to pay BOTH that loan and rent each month?

You definitely might not be able to. But you probably will get teased for “choosing” to live in your parents’ basement upon graduation. Technically, it is a “choice” if you count being unhoused as a viable alternative.

“Trust me, Sallie Mae/Navient is worse than Paulie from ‘Goodfellas.’”

This brings me to the life costs that I referenced earlier. Yes, it will take you longer to live on your own. First it will take you longer to rent a place with roommates (it took six years for me to do it). Then it will take you longer to be able to afford to rent a place alone. If you want to buy a house, you’ll have to wait longer for that, too. Marriage may be delayed (it was 10 years before my wife and I were ready to get married and buy a home). Having kids may be pushed off to a later (potentially imaginary) time when you’re more financially stable (it took 13 years before we were comfortable enough to have a child).

But let’s put these life choices aside. Maybe you don’t want to get married. Maybe you hate kids. That’s fine. However, if your passions ― even the very passions that you went to college to study ― involve creative or low-paying realms, you’re likely going to have to put off pursuing those dreams as well. You can’t choose the improperly glorified life of a starving artist if Navient is going to come knocking on your door six months after you graduate. Society might not care if you suffer for your art to the point where you can barely feed yourself, but… Fuck you. Pay me.

This brings me to two other often-overlooked points. First, the ability to choose to be a “starving artist” is most often reserved for those who are wealthy and either don’t have loans chasing them or have parents who can pay them off. This leads to inequity where class dictates which people can actually afford to create art.

Imagine trying to work as a lowly paid production assistant on film sets when you have six months before the debt collectors come knocking. They won’t accept the “experience” that you’ll be offered in exchange for freelance jobs in the arts as payment either. Or, you have the opportunity to work with a great company… as an intern… but not if you want to pay those loan bills. Realistically, you’re going to take the first job that someone offers to you, like I did ― like a responsible person does.

Second, I am only writing this as someone who has successfully been able to pay off my private loans from the perspective of a white male who has benefited from white privilege. Yes, I’m also the child of immigrants. Yes, I grew up middle class, but the privilege part also remains true. There are many people who are in a much more difficult position than I was.

With all that acknowledged, I can only tell of my experience in hope that it can help everyone who has to make decisions about student loans. The aggregated statistics offer little clarity. We can look at the student debt clock, always rising, which is currently at $1.87 trillion (yes, more than all combined credit card debt). Every year we hear that the average student debt is still rising, and it’s now about $40,000 per student, but that number is significantly lower than the six-figure debt I graduated with ― and that was in 2006. We meet senior citizens who are still paying off their student loans, but even that seems too abstract to comprehend at 17 years old.

While we’re talking about my personal decisions, you might be comforting yourself by assuming that my predicament is specific to my particularly bad choices. Or you might be thinking that I’m just some anti-college zealot. Neither is true. I fought my parents fervently about the decision of whether or not to go to college. It was a struggle to even get the conversation started. Neither of my parents, both immigrants from Italy, went to college. They were here, at least partially, so that their kids would have better opportunities. I succeeded in starting the conversation out of sheer stubbornness and the fact that my older brother had already become the first generation to attend college. My parents had, in one way, already “checked that box.”

The culmination of the conversation was a compromise. I would go to college only if I could study what I was really interested in. It wouldn’t be an extension of the largely mind-numbing and sprawling education that I got through high school. I was going to continue my education if, and only if, I could study filmmaking. I applied to only two schools, New York University and the University of Southern California. If I could go to either of those places to learn how to make films, I would do it with bells on. If not, I was going to skip college.

To my extreme surprise, I got into film school at NYU. And, here’s the thing, I loved it. This is not a story about how worthless college is and how no one should pay the astronomical fees that come with it. My college experience was everything one would imagine it to be. I met my best friends and collaborators, fell in love with Manhattan, enjoyed my freedom, lost my virginity and, most important, learned how to think about and make films.

I know the people I do now because I went to college. I’ve made many films, including one feature, and written dozens of screenplays because I learned how to do it in college. I’ve published a book about the lessons I learned making the feature film, which was modeled upon the production books that are required in tandem with shoots at college. I have the job that I do now indirectly because of a job that I took as a student worker while at college.

I know that the experience of NYU is exactly what I needed in my life. And, though it’s impossible to put a price on the extremely high value of all of the things I’ve listed here, I still know that the price of college is too high to be sustainable. I’m glad that I went to NYU, in spite of all of the obstacles mentioned. I chose to take out these loans and ― given the available choices ― it was the right choice. The real problem is the lack of choices. Besides, you ― dear 17-year-old reader ― haven’t made this choice yet.

“I want a future where people can get a college experience that is integral to shaping them into the people who they want to be that doesn’t come at the cost of delaying their future.”

I don’t have solutions, but I do hope that this anecdote gives a clear picture of the mess of the situation as you make your own decision and offers some things to think about before you proceed one way or another.

Additionally, the tuition and rooming costs when I was at NYU were around $40,000 a year, and I was able to graduate with less than $160,000 in debt because of whatever financial assistance and scholarships I could attain. The current cost is $86,440 a year, so the numbers I’ve relayed here undoubtedly sound like a dream to many readers. Again, these numbers are not given for shock value but rather in hope that you can try to actually consider them when making an informed decision.

I don’t recall the source for proper attribution, but I remember reading something once that struck me:

There are two types of people in the world. Those who go through something bad and want others to be able to avoid it, and those who go through something bad and think others should also have to experience it because they did.

I want a future where people can get a college experience that is integral to shaping them into the people they want to be that doesn’t come at the cost of delaying their future. I don’t want post-college life decisions to be limited by the initial decision that was made by a 17-year-old kid who never had any chance of realizing what he was getting himself into. And I don’t want the true, desirable college experience to be limited to the children of the upper class.

My student loans became part of my personality, part of every decision I made — like a toxic partner weighing on my mind, and this article is my divorce party.

Incidentally, I haven’t even mentioned my federal student loans, which are still around and still cost me $214.04/month. Given the monthly price of the private loans, this amount has always seemed relatively inconsequential, and I haven’t given it much thought. The loan term for the federal loans is 20 years, so I’m looking at five more years of monthly federal loan payments (completing when I’ll be 42 years old) unless I can redirect additional funds to repayment. Now that the private loans are paid off, it’s time to give the federal loans some attention.

Dominick Bagnato is a writer and filmmaker based in New York City. He is the screenwriter and director of the film “A Convenient Truth” (2015) and author of the book “Making Your First Feature Film: Lessons I Learned the Hard Way” (2017).

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