Financial Literacy Could Have Saved Me from Student Debt

Woman smiling in front of college campus

Khallilah Beecham-Watkins attended her dream college. But she's still paying for it.

April 12, 2016

 

My $70,000 burden of student debt is not something I carry lightly. As a first-generation college student, I had a lot of emotional support from my family while I navigated my way through the college admissions process. But when it came time to consider financial aid, not even the help from my mother was enough to figure out such a complicated process.

I thought I knew all that needed to happen in order to continue my education after high school. I had my to-do list down: apply to school, confirm acceptance, submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), apply for student loans, and register for classes. Check, check, check, check, check! However, I struggled to understand the terms and conditions associated with student loans. I also didn’t think about how I would pay for books and materials for classes or how the full burden of my student debt would hit me after college. And I certainly didn’t anticipate having to postpone many life goals in order to pay off those loans.

I am not alone: Of the 7.3 million undergraduate students attending four-year schools today, about 20 percent are first-generation students. However, because grant aid and family incomes have not risen at the same rate as college tuition, the dream of a college education has become even more of a challenge for many families. As a result, more students are borrowing money without fully understanding all the factors involved with student debt or how to manage and minimize it.

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Khallilah Beecham-Watkins (far left) with fellow graduates from the University of Missouri.

Financial Aid Is Free, Right?

As someone who was very involved in high school extracurricular activities, I was assured by administrators and teachers that my role in school plays, on student council, and on the yearbook team would help me secure college scholarships. I believed that these activities were my ticket out of my neighborhood and that once I applied for scholarships, I’d receive tons of money for school and not have to think about it again.

This was partly true. One merit-based scholarship that I received waived my out-of-state tuition. That scholarship, coupled with federal loans that I got by completing the FASFA, covered the amount I needed to attend school each year. When I signed a master promissory note — a legal document that says you promise to repay your student loans plus interest to the government — that talked about interest and deferment in terms I didn’t understand, all I knew was that signing it meant that I could attend my dream school: the University of Missouri.

While I earned my bachelor’s degree, I also acquired tens of thousands of dollars in debt. And  I didn’t realize how much that debt would affect my future. If I’m able to pay $800 a month toward my loans after completing my graduate program next year, I’ll be 37 when I finish paying them off. Today I am 25. While my husband and I have aspirations of owning a home, purchasing a better car, investing in retirement, and developing some savings, my lack of financial literacy when I started college has put those dreams on hold.

Putting the Pieces Together

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Today I better understand how to manage my debt from my work as a former college adviser, and I also realize that I was already at a disadvantage before I borrowed any money.

While higher education can improve women’s (and men’s) pay, men with the same level of education as their female peers still typically make more money. And this pay gap is even worse for women of color; for example, African American women are paid on average just 63 percent of what white men are paid. With this added burden, Latina and African American women especially are paying off student loans long after everyone else. The pay gap has affected generations before me, but I don’t want it — or my own debt — to be a worry for my children or grandchildren.

Although I won’t pay off my student debt for a while still, I make an attempt to share my story with other family members because I want my younger self’s lack of understanding about financial aid to be something for others to learn from. I hope there will also be more community action in the future around educating high school and college students about financial literacy and what it means to take out a loan to pay for post-secondary options. Attending your dream school is great, but it’s important to understand all the costs involved.

This post was written by former AAUW Media Relations and Marketing Intern Khallilah Beecham-Watkins.


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