Fear of Student Debt Made Me Sacrifice My Dreams: One Cop’s StoryMay 19, 2017
Valerie knew she wanted to go to college to achieve her academic dreams. But she found herself between a rock and a hard place when she faced the daunting challenge of actually affording it.
Even though she was estranged from her father and not receiving any financial support from him, she was rejected for federal aid when she filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) because he made too much money. (Valerie lost her mother at a young age.)
Valerie was terrified of taking out a single penny of student loans, because she was financially on her own. She was fortunate that at the time, 1998–2000, community college was an affordable option for her at $12 a credit, but “they aren’t such an affordable option anymore.”
Learn more about how student debt affects women in AAUW’s new research report, Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans
She supported herself by waiting tables, making minimum wage and tips to pursue her quest for an education. In that time she applied for financial aid three times but was denied each time, because she couldn’t provide her father’s income. In the eyes of the school she was still a dependent, as she was under the age of 21.
After obtaining her associate degree, she transferred to a state college, filled out the FAFSA and was again denied for assistance. She said she eventually got tired of trying. “I’m not sure if the process has improved at all,” said Valerie. “There was no one to help me navigate this process.”
In the middle of her junior year Valerie felt the financial strain especially hard. She had exhausted her options and was too scared of a lifetime of student debt to take out a private or public loan. She decided her only option was to drop out of school.
But on one final Hail Mary trip to the admissions office, she found out about a local AAUW scholarship program and applied. She was awarded a scholarship that she credits as helping her stay in school. She wrote an essay about her life experience and lack of ability to receive financial aid to afford the education she wanted so badly. “I can’t even tell you how grateful I was for that scholarship. Money was tight, tuition had increased at state colleges, and I couldn’t afford it anymore,” she said.
Following her graduation, she became a police officer. She met her husband, who was also a police officer, and they started building “our middle-class life.”
A native Californian, Valerie and her husband moved outside the San Francisco Bay Area, where the median home price is $700,000. When they first moved there, home prices were lower but have now sky rocketed because of rising living costs and the booming tech industry in nearby Silicon Valley. Right now, they can’t afford to buy a home.
Her husband has two children, and he and Valerie have a younger daughter together. The couple started paying out of pocket for the older two kids’ college the same year Valerie had her daughter. It made the most financial sense for Valerie to stay at home with her newborn daughter, but eventually Valerie returned to work because the bills were mounting and they had two tuitions to pay. But since she’d been out of the workforce for a while, she had to effectively start over at the police station. “I was making less money than before because I took time off to start a family, and now I’m trying to do more with less,” she said.
Valerie knew she needed to get a higher-paying job. “The things that drove me out of law enforcement kept me from returning at a higher level. So I started looking at my options of what I could be in my next life.” She realized she would need to go back to school and weighed her options with her skills and experiences.
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Valerie put her family first. They all got their degrees, and her husband got promoted, but the pay jump wasn’t much. “I want to say it’s worth it, but in the end, cost-benefit wise it’s not really there,” she said.
Valerie hasn’t gone back to school. Even if she did, Valerie’s area of study, public interest law, isn’t exactly a lucrative field that would help pay back massive amounts of student debt. “I wasn’t going to get rich doing it, but it’s where my heart is. It would take me years to pay off this education,” she said.
Looking back on the hurdles she’s faced in her academic career, Valerie notes, “Maybe that’s what’s wrong with me — that I won’t make the sacrifices — but I won’t sacrifice my family just to go back to school to make an uncertain salary in law,” she said. “The threat of debt is just too great.”
Learn more about how student debt affects women in AAUW’s new research report, Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans.
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Read AAUW’s latest research and learn why our country’s $1.3-trillion student debt burden falls unfairly on women.