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Here's what I wish I knew before I took out $22,500 in student loans

Chronicle File Photo
Chronicle File Photo

Last Friday morning, I sat in a room of my non-one percenter peers and attempted to decipher what, exactly, was being said to me about the debt I took on as part of the ever-rising cost of a Duke education. This is one of the less fun Duke graduation requirements: exit loan counseling.

The presenting loan counselor sped through the different types of loans and repayment plans, pausing on the slide that says we only escape our loans if we die or become permanently disabled, and at one point explaining that if, say, our aunt gives us a few thousand dollars for graduation, we should put that toward loan debt. I laughed, but no one else did. Leaving the session, I had to wonder: who are y’all’s aunts? How many people have faked their own death to avoid paying off student loans? And perhaps more importantly, how much did any of us really understand when we accepted our first student loan four years ago as high school seniors?

If your family income is somewhere above $40,000 a year, but not high enough to pay full price, and you didn’t manage to snag one of Duke’s full merit scholarships, you probably have some student loans. Like most Duke undergraduates with family incomes over $85,000 who still qualify for financial aid, I have taken out around $5,000 per year, for a total of about $20,000. That's the average for Duke, according to Alison Rabil, assistant vice provost and director of undergraduate financial aid. $20,000 is close to the maximum loan burden Duke will expect undergraduates to take out, and the limit on federal loans for undergraduate education is $31,000. However, the average student loan debt per borrower in the U.S. is nearly twice my burden at $37,172, meaning that many students take out private loans in addition to federal loans, which have lower, fixed interest rates. Many of our peer universities, however, offer loan-free financial aid, perhaps due in part to their larger endowments.

So now I'm about a month away from a Duke degree, and I'm in debt! Here are three things about student loans I wish I had known four years ago. If you already knew these things, I'm happy for you! Feel free to bask in your superior financial literacy.

1) Some of my loans began accruing interest the minute I got them.

There are three types of loans you might be awarded: Federal Direct loans (the subtypes of these are subsidized, unsubsidized, and PLUS), Duke administered loans (this includes Perkins and "Duke educational assistance"), or private educational loans. I have a combination of the first two types, except they’re all considered federal loans, which is a little confusing. Here are my five loans: 

  • One Federal Perkins loan from 2016: $5,000
  • Two subsidized Federal Stafford loans, one from 2018 and one from 2019: $10,500 
  • Two unsubsidized Federal Stafford Loans, one from 2017 and one from 2019: $7,000

All in all, my debt is $22,500. Except… according to an email from Duke I received in February, my debt is higher—$23,188. I originally assumed my loans didn’t start accruing interest until like, nine months after graduation? Maybe six months? Clearly, I wasn’t paying very close attention when I signed my loan agreement, called a “master promissory note,” at the end of my first year of college. As it turns out, those grace periods I remembered from my entrance loan counseling are reprieves from making payments, not accruing interest. Only subsidized loans don’t accrue interest during college and six months afterwards. That’s what the “subsidized” part means—the government pays the interest for you while you’re in school. My $7,000 in unsubsidized loans have accrued $688 in interest while I've been in college, and will continue to accrue more interest even if payments are deferred during that nine-month post-graduation grace period, or if I decide to go to graduate school.

2) The public service loan forgiveness program I was planning on using is more precarious than it sounds.

The averaged interest rate for all my loans is 4.6 percent, which means I’ll accrue a little over $1,000 in interest per year—about $3 per day—though over time the amount I accrue per year will decrease as I chip away at the original loan balance, called the principal.

The document Duke sent me in February estimates that my monthly payments will be $241 a month, but StudentLoans.gov says my payments will be around $186 a month if I enroll in the standard repayment plan. Except this can’t be right, because it estimates I’ll only pay $22,353 over the course of 10 years—less than my current loan balance. By my math, if I pay around $241 a month for ten years, I’ll pay off the loan, but also pay around $6,000 in interest.

I now have a decision to make: burn my savings from college to pay down some of my loan debt now, before it begins accruing interest, or keep the money in savings and instead enroll in a program which will allow me to make lower payments based on my income, and hope that I can successfully have my remaining loans forgiven at the end of 10 years of working a low-paying public service job. 

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program was created in 2007 to wipe away the remaining debt for public servants who worked for the government or certain nonprofits for at least ten years and made at least 120 on-time student loan payments in that time. The first class of students who completed those ten years became eligible to actually apply for loan forgiveness in 2017. Relying on the program is more of a gamble than it sounds: according to the headline of a NYTimes article from September of last year, “28,000 Public Servants Sought Student Loan Forgiveness. 96 Got It.” This is in part because many received bad information from their loan servicers. And the program might be cut entirely in the future, depending on how Congress votes.

If I enroll in an income-based repayment plan but don't end up qualifying for the program, I won't pay off my loans for several more years, and I will pay thousands dollars more in interest over the life of the loan. At this point, I'm not sure if it's worth the gamble.

3) You don’t actually have to accept the loans you’re offered.

The language on the financial aid website says students are “awarded” loan amounts. This sounds foolish now, but it never occurred to me that I could, and perhaps should, decline the loans I was “awarded.” These aren’t actually awards… they’re debt. And that means that you don’t have to take them on if you can find other ways to pay tuition and live. Especially this year, my living expenses are much lower since I live off campus and don’t buy a meal plan. I've been able to save a few thousand dollars since starting college thanks to my own work and the relative wealth of my family, so in retrospect, I wish I hadn’t accepted all my financial aid “awards.”

I can imagine the comment section on this column now: a handful of Boomers explaining that when they went to Duke in the late 1960s, they didn’t take out loans and instead got a job. Thank you so much in advance for those comments, but in fact, I, too, worked full time every summer and usually worked between two and four part-time jobs per semester.

In addition to being a course assistant and middle school tutor, I do odd jobs: I copy edit legal documents and self-published romance novels on a freelancing website, I babysit occasionally and participate in at least a few medical or behavioral studies per month. For extra money this year, I’ve gotten EEGs, peed into cups and smoked different varieties of experimental cigarettes into glass tubes in a lab near the hospital. Though I budget neurotically, last year I made about $6,000 total–not nearly enough to cover the cost of attending Duke.

The salary for the job I’ve accepted next year is about $27,500, plus an approximately $6,000 bonus at the end of the year to put toward graduate school or loan debt. Because my main interests are education, social work and journalism, I don’t imagine I’ll ever have a job which pays over $50,000 per year, so my monthly loan payments will be a significant chunk of my budget until I pay them off.

It’s easy to get blinded by the prestige of Duke when you first get in—especially with an acceptance rate of around 5 percent—and I’m grateful for the chance to have come here and the intangible benefits my education has brought me. I could have gone to a different school and graduated without loan debt, but ultimately I picked Duke because I thought it would be the best opportunity to learn as much as I could. I made a choice to take on this debt with the help of my family. I don’t regret that choice today, but was $22,500 plus interest worth it? Ask me again in ten years.

Frances Beroset is a Trinity senior and the editorial page editor of The Chronicle.

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