A Guest Post from Leilani Reyes

I am a member of the ill-fated Class of 2020. And I have student debt in quantities I am loath to admit. I began college in 2016 at a private university and now that I have graduated I am looking back at the path I took that’s gotten me to this point. This point being a jobless wasteland ravaged by a pandemic, surrounded by very many people in a similar boat of debt, anxiety, and fear of the future. 

In senior year of high school, college applications are the be-all end-all. This is when your fate is decided, or at least so it seems the way classmates and counselors talk about it. If you want to succeed in the world in any capacity, you need a degree, they said. And at my particular high school, it was very competitive with dozens of my peers heading to ivy leagues. 

I had to decide the course of the rest of my life at the age of 17, choosing to follow my passion and go to a prestigious LA film school, which I had been wanting to do since age 11. I understood the cost of attending a private university, but knew I could pursue various forms of financial aid to cover the extraordinary cost of getting closer to my career dreams. 

Once I had committed, figuring out the money became more and more difficult. Even with several miscellaneous scholarships my annual total was still surpassing the $30,000 mark. But I had committed and I was in love with the school I chose, so I did what I had to do and worked with my family to cover the cost with federal student loans, some in my parents’ names with Parent Plus, and some smaller federal and private loans in my name. 

While I was there, I felt entirely alone in my situation. Most of my classmates came from wealthy families that paid the $60,000+ tuition out of pocket, or came from more low-income families who received much more support from federal grants and scholarships. For me, coming from a solidly middle class family, we did not qualify for such support. My family agreed to help me get the loans, but paying them once I graduated was all up to me. This became something of a dirty secret; I couldn’t share with anyone the reality of my financial situation for fear of facing pity, derision, or outright shaming by my peers. 

Three years passed, with each year tacking on more and more to the federal loan, with a couple private loans in my name thrown in to cover remaining costs. Since then, every decision I have had to make about my lifestyle, where I lived, if I traveled, etc, was shaped by the impending reality of my large monthly payment once I was no longer a student. I saved all the money I could while in school so that I could start paying my debt after graduation, but things got even more complicated. 

In March, we all know what happened. The industry I had been working three years to enter was effectively frozen. With all the layoffs I was not only competing for jobs with other 2020 grads, but also all the hundreds and thousands of people who lost their jobs. Thankfully, federal loans were frozen and I did not have to pay my monthly $1000 expense for most of the year. 

Now it is 2021 and the job market is not showing signs of improvement. Biden has put a hold on student loan repayment until September, so I can breathe a little easier. 

More and more it is becoming essential in this economy and job market to have at least a bachelor’s degree, yet tuition continues to rise. In the last 20 years, tuition at public universities has risen 212% for in-state, 165% for out-of-state, and 144% for private universities, according to US News. For many people in my age group, myself included, loans are the only way to get that degree, so the debt is inevitable.

Bernie Sanders started the discussion about lowering the cost of higher education with fervor years ago, and thankfully Joe Biden has continued that discussion. Biden, in his campaign, has voiced support for forgiving portions of student loan debt and creating new means of repayment. I, along with many others surely, am looking forward to his actions in office to help change this system. 

Going to college was a great experience for me, that shaped me in many positive ways and gave me many lasting memories. In my first year I debated dropping out because of the cost, but ultimately decided against it because I was happier there than I had ever been. Though I don’t regret going to the college I did, I will continue to live with the consequence of that decision for years to come. I have hope though for the children of today, and I hope they don’t have to make the same difficult decision I had to make at 17. I’m rooting for change this upcoming presidential term, and hope that even those without debt can realize that this is a system in need of great reform, for the sake of the present-day children, our children, and those in the rocky student-debt boat alongside me.