I Can’t Afford to Finish My College Degree and I Have Too Much Debt


Dear Steve,

I graduated with my bachelors degree in Studio Art with a concentration in digital imaging. I attended a religious institution for graduate school, hoping to obtain my master’s, teach, then my PHD. Due to life and my BA being useless, I had to take a lower paying job and worked crazy hours to support myself, no family etc to help, Just ME.

I took out those loans from Sallie Mae for my Master’s but my grades dropped, with work stress, school stress, financial stress, and just being over all out of place. I signed up for a credit card and it helped briefly but when I applied for another loan for school I was denied. I didn’t have a cosigner etc.

So I’ve been out of school 40% completed of my master’s degree with NO WAY of getting back in financially, my grades are too low to get any assistance from school and my job is so inconsistent along with horrible medical bills that are close to becoming delinquent. I’m not asking for a hand out I don’t mind working, but it just seems like I will never go back to school because of all of these burdens.

How am I to complete my degree in order to make more money if my degrees were the reason I borrowed the money? Is it legal to expect someone to pay their entire income to student loans, not go to school, eat, have a place to live, or a peace of mind?

Should I go to the peace corps or change my degree path to teaching to have some type of alleviation, but even then will someone provide the finances to switch career paths?



Dear Shaun,

I certainly feel your pain but how you think this part of life works, is mistaken.

About three in four people with student loan debt never graduate or earn the degree. Millions of people are drowning under the same situation and one-by-one people fell off the same cliff.

There are some basic realities that so many people missed or overlooked along the way to student loan debt.

1. You have to make sure that your field of study will support your student loan debt. The best way to do this is in fields with low pay, graduate as debt free as possible. I’ve seen enough people with graphic arts degrees and $175,000 of student loan debt to realize, nobody is doing the math.

2. Each of us is entitled to nothing. Under the current system of private student loans, nobody is entitled to a break. At least with federal student loans there is an income driven repayment option, as imperfect as it is. The bait of school was dangled and you bit hard.

3. Sadly, it might just not be possible for you to work and afford to complete your degree. Whatever you do, do not get private student loans.

4. I would suggest you sit back and take a deep breath. Spend some time doing the math and even see if there is a way to support yourself with a Ph.D. and to deal with the total student loan debt you might have to accomplish that goal. For example, according to Salary.com a Fine Arts degree is high on the list of making you happy but low on the list of making money. But that was the case before you started on this journey as well. From PayScale.com it looks like the home run in the Fine Arts area is to become a creative director. I’m not sure that requires a Ph.D.

5. Everything I’ve just said to you will be massively unpopular and I would be surprised if you’ve read my answer this far. But that does not change the unfortunate reality of the situation.

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6. It sounds like you got buried in debt from day one when you pursued the art and digital imaging route if there was no available income route to support that debt following that degree.

7. But all of this doesn’t mean things are hopeless. You have options but your future path may just not follow the past dreams. You can focus your attention to finding one or more jobs to afford to live. If your income is low you can go to Benefits.gov and see what additional help is available. If these are federal student loans, you can read this. If these are private student loans you can make the agreed monthly payment or default if you can’t afford them. That path has consequences.

I’d focus on fixing the mess you are dragging along from the past than leaping in deeper at this point.

You ask, “Is it legal to expect someone to pay their entire income to student loans, not go to school, eat, have a place to live, or a peace of mind?” The short answer is yes it is. There is no requirement for any person to go further in debt than they can afford to repay. Neither the lender nor the school is evaluating if you can afford your degree. They all shift that responsibility to the student.

You ask if you should go to the Peace Corps. If these are federal student loans then you might want to think about that option. You can get more details on that here. I happen to be a huge fan of the Peace Corps as the child of someone who helped to start it. The life experience was invaluable and I would always encourage people to reach outside their lives to help others.

As far as switching careers at this point and finding someone to pay for it, that might be possible. I would hunt for an employer who provides some type of tuition reimbursement or provides some educational benefit.

Damon Day - Pro Debt Coach

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Steve Rhode is the Get Out of Debt Guy and has been helping good people with bad debt problems since 1994. You can learn more about Steve, here.
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