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My dream school: the teen fantasy I narrowly avoided

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In every hero’s journey, apotheosis hinges on a trip to the abyss. Hollywood calls this moment the Dark Night of the Soul (DNofS). I greeted mine in the morning, however (DMofS) and with some pride because at 17 years old the scene flattered me by excelling in all the right metrics.

I lift a fingertip to the tall pane of mirror that dominates my living room. My reflection is cool to the touch and dawn-shadowy, though the face it depicts is an acrid mess of hot, shuddering sobs. I must be as heavy as anyone ever was. Rivulets of tears murk the neckline of the unisex t-shirt that still shows folds from the dark blue box it arrived in a month ago. Y*** Class of 2021. A t-shirt that means the mythic gates have opened to me! But I will never pass through to Elysium. The gods deal cruelly, I’ve learned. For today I will rebuke my ticket to paradise – sob! – for the full-ride scholarship I’ve received at a comparable university that nevertheless is not named Y***. Sobsobsob! 

The moment has a cinematic, memoir-ready quality so I raise my iPhone and snap a pic. Forget first-period calculus; I will watch myself bleed my heartbreak in the gathering light of my most fateful day while my mother prepares a quiche and tries not to say anything. 

A lot went wrong to make this scene possible. During my senior year of high school, the messaging I received about college choice so gloriously mythologized the dream school that, yeah, I honestly cast myself in the great tragedy of my life when I didn’t get to go. In truth, I had narrowly avoided the real abysmal monster: student loans. 

For me and thousands of other American teenagers, committing to the dream school required committing to a bulwark of post-graduate debt. That’s this-is-your-life-now debt. Debt that puts career moves and marriages on hold (for 47% of student loan borrowers). Debt that adults regret in hindsight (53% of borrowers). Debt that most people feel they were unequipped to understand as a high schooler (71% of borrowers). And yet a surging river of counsel propelled me toward a debt-ridden future from nearly all directions. Only the small pocket of my parents’ influence held me like an eddy against what I now understand was Niagara Falls.

Student debt is growing in this country like an epidemic. Private student loan debt increased by $16.8 billion in 2020. Among college students today, 65% graduate with student debt. Some of this is due to necessity; tuition, on average, doubles every nine years. But given that students of private, for-profit universities borrow nearly 50% more than their public school peers, much of the issue is due to messaging that the prestigious school will be worth it. Whether it’s “this is what you’ve been working toward” or “that degree will get you anywhere,” the message ushers teenage students into higher debt whose cost is not yet conceivable. How can we at our tender age possibly anticipate “worth it”? How can we know what goals and milestones will become the hallmarks of our lives? At 17, I wanted to be a brain surgeon because Shonda Rhimes made it sexy.

And that reminds me – the dream school mania is so entrenched, it’s turning up in pop media. I recently saw a film that made me want to rip out my larynx. It features a certain arachnid-esque boy who, among other outrages, calls a squadron of monsters to Earth and wipes the memory of his existence from the minds of everyone he’s ever known so that his two best friends can...attend MIT (their dream school). The boy in question is a superhero. The movie targets high schoolers. We should be worried about this!

I’ve become increasingly worried about this in the last four years. Thanks to an odd quirk of my scholarship’s selection process, I’ve seen behind the curtain of how dream schools gets negotiated in other families. I act as a sherpa to high school-aged winners who must now navigate a fairytale choice. We’re talking full-ride to a top ten school with all the bells and whistles versus, and it brings me no joy to type this, HYPSM. The air up here is thinner than K2. And guess what? Most of the time, the kids can’t get past the names. Cachet trumps. Even the parents go for it – in many cases, more so than their children – and they can’t always pay for it either. Downriver go the teenagers, imagining Elysium.

I wish I could call over the sirens and convince them of their miracle. Because the vast, vast majority of people who wrestle with the question of loans are not in this position. They’re wagering in calculuses far murkier. And yet the fact that even here in the collegiate stratosphere, students are so convinced that the minutiae that make Harvard Harvard and not Duke will be meaningful enough to warrant driving four Maseratis over a cliff is, frankly, a perfect illustration of my point. We have a problem. 

Debt is not going away anytime soon. President Biden campaigned with some of the most progressive promises toward student debt forgiveness this country has seen. He even gestured toward those promises in office, wiping $15 billion in student loan debt for 675,000 borrowers in his first year. Somehow, that number accounts for less than 1% of the outstanding amount nationwide. Now the administration is hedging. When asked about debt forgiveness at a press conference in January, the president simply ignored the question.

If we can’t change the fact of student debt, we must change our story about it. College-bound teenagers deserve counseling that represents statistics like the ones above: metrics that add a healthy dose of regretful, beleaguered adults-by-the-million to their dream school dreamscapes. We must abandon the myth that prestige is unilateral justification. It’s difficult, but we’ve done it before in the 19th century with the Chicago River. Reverse the flow, people. 

Taylor Plett is a Trinity senior. 

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