She Went to Her Dream School, but Student Debt Turned It into a NightmareMay 24, 2017
Growing up, Curry Oglesby always knew she would go to college. Her brother was the first on her father’s side to finish college, and she was expected to do the same. “What wasn’t covered in those expectations was how I was supposed to pay for it.”
Throughout her schooling, Oglesby dedicated herself completely to her studies, hoping her good grades would earn her academic scholarships. “My mom had no money; my dad had zero funds and he was tight as hell. I knew I’d have to do it my own way,” says Oglesby.
Learn more about how student debt affects women in AAUW’s new research report, Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans
She took all honors and AP courses in her high school’s gifted program, in which she was one of only four black girls. “Microaggressions happened every day, way before I knew what microaggressions were. Being a black girl in the South … you have to take them in stride and deal as it comes. You struggle but you push yourself to prove them wrong, stay the course, and get good grades,” she says. Her hard work paid off: She graduated from high school with a 4.2 GPA.
She applied and was accepted to five schools that gave her scholarship options. She visited Howard University and immediately loved the campus, the students, as well as the teachers in the health school she wanted to attend. Howard also gave her the most substantial scholarship. That settled her decision.
At Howard, Oglesby’s scholarship covered tuition along with a small book stipend but did not include housing, so her mother took out loans to pay for housing the first year. Then, another problem came up for her finances: In her first semester, Oglesby was accidentally placed in a calculus class she should not have been in. She then ran up against how apparently infamously difficult it is at Howard to switch around classes and was unable to get out of the class. She ended up getting a D, which cost her her scholarship. Even though she worked extra hard her second semester to bring up her GPA, she ended up missing the required number by a tenth of a point and lost her scholarship.
“I freaked out,” says Oglesby. “I thought I would have to drop out of school but my mom said, ‘No, you are attending school, period. We will figure it out.’ The way we figured out was to take out loans. It was our only option.”
Oglesby turned to federal loans: Her mother took out loans to cover the bulk of her tuition and Oglesby took out loans to cover her room and board. She grew accustomed to the daily burden of student debt, even at one point foregoing her meal plan to avoid the few thousand dollars it added to her loan. “I chose books over food,” she says.
She could have picked up a job, she says, to cover tuition, but her mother was adamant that Oglesby focus on her grades. “She wanted me to end with a great GPA so I could get a good job as soon as I graduated. I thought I was setting myself up for that.”
Still, Oglesby ended up having to get that part-time job anyway. During senior year, while juggling 18–20 credit hours, she worked 20–30 hours per week in a retail job because her mother’s loans were not enough for Oglesby to afford food. She used her paycheck to cover books, food, and her travel back to North Carolina to see her family.
“I chose books over food.”
— Curry Oglesby
She graduated in 2009 and immediately started applying to jobs — at the height of the recession. Her desired field in the health industry was facing massive layoffs and a hiring freeze. Putting aside her desired career path, she turned to sales, staying on at her retail job. She knew that she had six months after graduation before she had to start paying back her loans. But her basic expenses were only growing: She had just leased an apartment and now had rent and utilities to pay and maintenance costs on her vehicle to cover. She was struggling, and the clock was ticking.
Her regular payments kicked in after six months, at around $300–350 — a lot of money for a person with a retail salary. “Every week you do the addition and subtraction in your head for your budget,” Oglesby remembers. “I had to pay $750 for rent, $250 for utilities, cover my food, transportation, any travel, and God forbid I wanted to have any semblance of fun. I began to sink fast,” she says.
“You don’t expect to get a degree and be struggling as soon as you graduate. I’m a productive member of society, I work hard, I work to pay my stuff on time, but I was stuck.”
— Curry Oglesby
Desperate, she ended up requesting a deferment on her loans, which continued for the next two years. Then, she had to take on credit card debt to pay her rent. “It was disheartening. You don’t expect to get a degree and be struggling as soon as you graduate. I’m a productive member of society, I work hard, I work to pay my stuff on time, but I was stuck.”
Oglesby ended up getting a better sales job that gave her enough stability to manage her expenses. But she still has to deal with the repercussions of credit card debt. And the tradeoff of her promotion was more debt — she had to purchase a car to get to company branch meetings, which put her right back in the cycle of debt and repayment she faced when she first began college.
Just when things were starting to look manageable, Oglesby saw her wages suffer. Because she was receiving deferments on her student loans (the most difficult of all loans to discharge), the federal government began garnishing her wages by 15 percent. She called to negotiate another payment option and found that the alternatives would only cost her more money she didn’t have.
Oglesby recently moved to a stable, higher-paying job. Her wages are no longer garnished since she can afford to pay a little more toward her loans with her higher paycheck. Eight years after she graduated from college, she still owes $6,000 in student loans. Originally the loans totaled $14,000 but, thanks to accrued interest and wage garnishments, she will have paid back more than $19,000 when she’s finished — just under the current U.S. average debt for bachelor’s degree graduates, as AAUW’s report Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans explains.
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But she’s lucky, at least, to have had the support of her family. “I called my mom crying so many times and she would help me out even though she didn’t have money. My stepdad would dip into his retirement. My sisters would help me with bills or pay for my plane ticket home to visit my mom. If it wasn’t for my family helping me when I asked … I wouldn’t have made it. I would’ve had to move back home and feel like a failure. But I don’t feel that way now. … Now I can see the light. I can handle that debt now.”
Was the degree worth the years of struggling through emotional and financial strain? “I’m thankful for the ability the loans gave me in order to go to school,” Oglesby says, “but I wish instead of a six-month grace period, it was two years. Who gets on their feet six months after graduation? Being a 22-year-old kid, because you are a kid, to understand how to pay all of that off and the way to manage your money, the amount of pride it strips from you … It took a lot of my pride. It took a lot of my happiness from what I had accomplished.”
Learn more about how student debt impacts women with AAUW’s new research report, Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans.