Ds Scholarship

I Graduated From College Free of Student Debt. I’m Not a Model for Anyone.

When I graduated from the University of Oregon in 2017, I didn’t feel proud. I was overwhelmed with satisfaction. I felt like I was getting away with something, waiting to be caught.

I had done what, four years ago, I feared was impossible. As a low-income, first-generation college student pushing my own way to school, I finished without debt—something that is nearly impossible today for any college student in similar circumstances.

Sometimes, when I meet other students who have managed to get college degrees debt-free, I hear echoes of American shoe legends in their narrative. I often wondered why I didn’t share their point of view, and why I didn’t throw out my experience saying, “It was hard work but I did, and I learned that nothing is impossible if you want it hard enough and work hard enough.”

I left my graduation with a different situation: I thought the system was broken.

Student loan borrowers in America owe a collective $1.6 trillion, tuition growth has outpaced inflation over the past several decades, and according to a Pew Research Center report, more poor students than ever are enrolled in colleges in the US in Last few years.

More and more American college students will find themselves on the tightrope of their college career, a thin wire of hard work and a pure chance keeping them from falling into insurmountable debt. For me, would anything have been different – if I didn’t get the help I got, if I had attended another high school, if I had other family responsibilities, if I couldn’t get a job – I would have been one of those graduates who are suffocating under Uncontrollable debts.

where it started

By the time I started receiving college acceptance letters, I knew I would have to push myself through the school. To keep my costs down, I chose a state public school, the University of Oregon, in Eugene, and enrolled in honors college. As an honors college student, I also paid an extra $1,000 in tuition per semester, and lived in dorms with a first-year meal plan. In all, my first semester as an undergraduate cost $9,870 (and 25 cents, if you count).

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I have received several scholarships along with other grants and financial aid for low-income students, including the Federal Pell Grant and the Federal Educational Opportunity Supplemental Grant. I’ve also taken out thousands of dollars in subsidized and unsubsidized federal loans.

But I lost one of my scholarships about a week after starting school. The scholarship, valued at $20,000 over four years, was an entitlement scholarship for middle-income students. My mother and her husband separated the summer before my first year, and without his job as part of our family’s income, I fell into the lower income bracket.

The school sent a letter to my building mailbox saying that because my family’s income no longer qualifies for the scholarship, I will not receive the money I earned.

To make up the difference, I got some extra help, including another federal loan for students with “exceptional financial needs.” It wasn’t enough, so I borrowed $600 from a friend, put an extra $600 on a credit card, and started working 25 hours a week. I switched to the least expensive meal plan, and after the Christmas holidays I switched to the cheapest bedroom available.

I was bothered by the loss of the scholarship – through no fault of my own. It brought on a horror that never went away, and I could never get rid of it.

The next four years

If you had only relied on the financial assistance you received as a low-income student, today you would owe tens of thousands of dollars. These scholarships did not come close to covering the costs of attendance, especially after I lost a major source of funding during my first month on campus. This is what I did:

You have reduced costs. I left my planned second major, Spanish, and resolved to take the minimum courses required to graduate. After my first year, I applied for (and received) additional merit scholarships each year — enough to cover all of my academic costs, allowing me to start paying off the debt I had already accrued.

I was constantly working. I couldn’t bear to stay out of work even when classes were in sessions, so I always had a job. I was able to earn a small monthly salary when I worked at the school newspaper, and maintained a part-time job in a campus dining hall. I combined freelance work and one-on-one jobs on the weekends.

For most of the last two years of my studies, I worked 40 hours a week at the local newspaper, first as an intern, then as a staff reporter. I filled my class schedule with morning sessions so I could get off by noon on the late shift in the editing room. By 10 p.m. or so, I was back in the campus library to write papers and study for hours. I would walk home in the early hours of the morning to do it all over again.

I neglected my well-being. To pay off my existing loans and not accumulate any more debt, I had to balance my demanding work schedule with the equally demanding cycle load. My health has affected over time, although I have tried to convince my mother and friends that I am thriving. I rarely sleep more than three to six hours a night.

I was in a constant state of cutting costs, and there was nothing more precious than saving it. There were periods when I ate very little to avoid paying for groceries and subsisting on tiny amounts of coffee, eggs, canned beans, and rice. For a year or so, I didn’t have health insurance; I stopped going to the doctor and the dentist, even when I needed care.

I was lucky

So why don’t I see this as a success story, a model that low-income students should follow? After all, you worked hard and the work paid off.

But I also know that compared to other lower-income first-generation college students, I had privilege and luck on my part.

Unlike many others in similar circumstances, I did not care about family members or siblings while I was at school. He was not prohibited from applying for federal assistance because my parents did not file their taxes. I went to a high school that adequately prepared me for the rigors of college, and I blindly chose a program that offered a great deal of merit-based scholarships to its students.

I shiver as I think of all the details, the little breaks and the opportunities I had, that only when stacked on top of each other in the right order allowed me to escape my student debt. Took some breaks—that my college friend had $600 to loan me a new year, or another candidate didn’t get me out for a big scholarship—and the tower collapsed. In less fortunate circumstances, no amount of hard work will suffice.

Tuition fees at US universities have nearly tripled since 1990. As President Biden seeks to ease the burden on some students, experts explain how federal financial assistance programs can actually contribute to rising costs. Photo: Storyblocks

Ms. Fontana is the Wall Street Journal’s New York correspondent. Write to francesca.fontana@wsj.com

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