Opinions are the writer’s own and not those of Blavity’s.
As students return to campus this fall, we’re not only thinking about our classes and the continuing pandemic. Many of us will face a larger issue: figuring out how to pay for our higher education.
There has been good news lately about tuition relief. For example, Trinity Washington University paid off the balances owed by about 400 undergraduates. Wilberforce University wiped away all student debt for the classes of 2020 and 2021. And Clark Atlanta University eliminated student balances to help support them during this public health nightmare.
Still, many people, like myself, are continuing their education while facing a wave of debt.
I had a good undergraduate experience at the University of West Georgia, about 50 miles outside of Atlanta. I majored in mass communications and worked as an orientation leader for incoming students during the summer. Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship, the Pell Grant and my parents’ savings helped with most expenses.
Then during my junior year, my father passed away at 51 years old from pulmonary fibrosis and things changed unbelievably. At 20 years old, I was left wondering how I was going to pay for school. Without my dad’s help, I relied on loans even more.
After graduating from West Georgia, I decided to continue my education in hopes of developing better career opportunities. Today, I am a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in writing and digital communication at Agnes Scott College near Atlanta. I am polishing my skills as a writer and learning how to think critically about digital media. But the opportunity isn’t cheap: By the time I graduate next spring, my student loan balance could buy a 2021 Mercedes Benz CLA — a dream car for some, an unimaginable desire for me.
Still, I’ve had a chance to learn from my dad’s frugal practices. For example, with my first debit card, he taught me to always keep a minimum of $100 available. He also told me to set aside cash just for emergencies. I’ve learned those lessons well. I’m known to sacrifice when it comes to saving — skipping lunch outings, shopping at thrift stores and finding ways to have fun at home for free.
If it were possible to go back in time two years, I would make a few adjustments to my educational experience. I would have worked longer after graduating with my bachelor’s degree to build some savings for graduate school. With a steady job, I would have been intentional about saving, which would mean one less burden while in grad school. I could buy textbooks and not have to worry about how another expense would be paid. Maybe I could take a guilt-free trip to buy myself lunch.
The problem for me and so many other students is, while we’re figuring out school and finances, most of us are holding down jobs. I am the first in my family to go four years straight to a bachelor’s degree and on to grad school. My family supports my educational goals wholeheartedly, but the fact is college finances are complicated. I have worked two jobs at once during grad school to pay the bills.
For students or those who are about to become students, my advice is to start saving early.
For everyone else, when you see us cross the stage, pick up our diplomas and hug our families, just know some of us are saluting people like my dad who cannot be a part of the celebration. Change can happen suddenly and at any time, as it did for me. So, please understand that it takes a lot to stay in college these days.
As the country continues to talk about how to support higher education and whether college is worth it, students like me hope people will recognize the value of investing in us. We represent the best hopes for our country’s future.
Erikah Swift is a Lumina Foundation intern and Agnes Scott College student.