Harassment, Low Wages, and Debt: One Nonprofit Worker’s StoryMay 24, 2017
Ashley thought she was being financially savvy by going to a local community college near her home in Illinois. Ashley is one of 12 kids, and her family wasn’t in a position to foot the bill for her education. She attended class full time while working full time, split between Starbucks and a doctor’s office. She graduated with her associate degree in May 2008 and eventually transferred to Columbia College, Chicago.
Learn more about how student debt affects women in AAUW’s new research report, Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans
She started pursuing her bachelor’s degree and made the decision not to work her first full semester to fully concentrate on classes while living off of student loans to see if it was a viable option. She decided to study abroad in 2009 in Belize. Unfortunately, she got sick and ended up incurring major medical expenses. In order to save money she decided to live at home and commute during her final semester.
Ashley graduated with her degree in journalism and soon received a fellowship to work as a reporter at the state capital. “I thought I was hired by a reputable media outlet, but the entire experience was miserable,” said Ashley. Since her six months of deferment on her student loans was up, “I desperately needed the money,” she said. She made $400 every two weeks, and half her earnings went to rent. She was also locked into her lease for six months, thus leaving her fellowship earlier was not an option. “On top of this, it was such a hostile work environment,” she says. “All the young women, including myself, were sexually harassed just for daring to be a woman in the office.”
Knowing that she could not continue in her current situation and facing bias and discrimination in the journalism field, Ashley started to make plans for her future. Facing a stagnant job market, she decided to go back to graduate school. “I couldn’t afford to have internet, so I had to go to Barnes & Noble every weekend to apply.” She ended up applying to only one school, the George Washington University, as she was unable to afford any more application fees.
“The student loan process is so demoralizing,
and there’s no escape.”
She was accepted and made the trek to Washington, D.C. She worked as a nanny in order to pay for school. She took on another job at a legal service organization, which was low paying but allowed her to stay in D.C. following graduation. Ashley was at an immediate disadvantage upon graduation due to her student loans; she found that there is no room for error in her budget, and her student loans combined with other debt have a snowball effect.
“The thing that gets me is the effort to pay off other debt — they make it nearly impossible. They go through everything you spend money on. Say you make $3,000 and spend $2,600 on everything, they expect exactly $400,” she says. “There is no reality in world of student loans.”
Ashley has taken second jobs at points and has scaled back financially as much as she can, but she feels like the choices she makes don’t matter. “I’ve gotten to a point that I live very bare bones, barely buying any food that should be consumed by a human. Cheap rent, cheap everything,” she says. “I will make the smallest payment I possibly can because there isn’t going to be any end in sight, so what’s the point? I’m at a terrible crossroads. If I didn’t have my dad cosigned on two of my loans, I would never pay them!”
Right now, Ashley can’t afford much more than the minimum payment. The balancing act of paying off her student debt and affording living expenses has actually forced her to take on $6,000 in additional loans. She consolidated most of her loans except one. On that loan, which is $5,000, she’s paid $2,500. But due to compiling interest, she still owes an additional $6,500. It’s a frustrating cycle.
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“I’m a woman, I am extremely underpaid for the amount of education I have. I make less than $50,000, and I have a master’s degree in D.C. I have five roommates, and I live in a group house. I bike 15 miles a day to get to and from work. I do all the stuff I’m supposed to do to save money,” Ashley says.
An online calculator says that Ashley’s payoff date for her loans is 2047. But the true answer for when she’ll pay off her student loans, Ashley believes, is never, “unless I magically come into a ridiculous amount of money.”
Because of her background and education in advocacy, Ashley knows how to navigate complicated systems, but she’s experienced the barriers and complexity of dealing with Sallie Mae and other lenders firsthand. “The system, they are unwilling to work with you in any way,” Ashley says. “If you tell them you can’t afford something they just go a dollar under. The student loan process is so demoralizing, and there’s no escape,” she says.
Learn more about how student debt affects women with AAUW’s new research report, Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans.