What’s your biggest regret? That’s a question I’ve been asked a lot. On dates, on job interviews, even to myself when I’m lying in bed late at night unable to sleep. More often than not, the first thing I consider is my choice in universities. The debt I’ve accrued. The situation I’ve put myself in. In my time as a psychology minor, we were taught the psychosis behind self-justification. This is the process of freeing yourself from a negative feeling or regret by justifying your decisions, even if those decisions don’t align with your beliefs. In my case, I fight for ways to mentally justify my education.
Growing up, I believed I could go to any university I got into, and being an AP Honors kid I always assumed places like Princeton or Columbia were saving seats for me. I attribute this to Disney movies where the main character is always deciding between two different Ivy League schools and what to wear to prom and I figured that was going to be me someday. Even when my parents were going through a costly divorce, as a sixteen year old, I never once considered the possibility that we couldn’t afford the cost of a private school education. In one of my famous bouts of teenage naivety that my family will never let me forget, I boldly and sincerely told my mom “I would rather kill myself than go to community college” when she suggested the idea to save money. My reasoning was that I deserved more. That I had earned more with my good grades and slew of extracurricular activities.
That’s why it was surprising when after all of my tantrums and rants in my spoiled teenage phase I decided on a popular public university in Texas. Not because of its prestige or its reputation, but because that’s where my friends were going. I tried my best to fit in and find my niche among the other 30,000 undergrads at the, unbeknownst to me, renowned party school. But I quickly realized picking a school based on who else would be there was a terrible mistake. I withdrew after only one semester and began researching schools that better fit me. In the meantime, I enrolled in a local community college to keep up with my credits while deciding where to go. On the first day of class I realized how ridiculous and narrow minded I had been a few years prior. It was mildly embarrassing to run into familiar faces and have to explain why I was back in our hometown, but that feeling was quickly abashed by the affordable price tag.
Just a semester into community college, I somehow reverted back to my entitled self. Looking around at my classmates I felt like I didn’t belong with them, as if I somehow had more potential than the next kid. In my research for schools I stumbled upon an incredible program at an infamously expensive private school in Dallas. With a small undergrad class of 7,000, intimate class sizes, and promise of success by associated, I applied and was quickly accepted. Without a single moment of hesitation I accepted and enrolled, not once considering its cost. It wasn’t until my senior year did I realize what I had committed to.
My parents are not rich nor are they poor. We lived a comfortable life, never feeling the need for a luxury lifestyle yet never left wanting either. My mom always called us middle class, but I knew we were better off than she made us out to be. My mom drove a big sedan to tote around me and my three brothers and we lived in a house just big enough for the six of us. As a kid I always assumed they would pay for my school outright. My dad had a successful business of his own and my mom never worked out of need but out of want. Later on, I knew I would have to take on most of that responsibility, which I didn’t mind. As the oldest child I enjoyed being independent and took pride in the fact. I applied for a credit card when I was eighteen and quickly learned how to build good credit. What I didn’t learn however, is the crushing weight that can be student debt.
Since my time at my university, I have amassed over $100,000 in debt. What’s even worse, I didn’t realize how much that really was until very recently. It’s difficult to even think about the payments I will have to make in the future without having an anxiety attack. It’s impossible to blame anyone but myself, but I still try. I blame the government for high student loan interest rates. I blame my school for not having a more affordable degree plan. I blame my parents for not having enough money to help me and the unrealistic expectations born from watching Disney movies. But at the end of the day, I ultimately blame myself. For believing I somehow deserved an education that I could never afford. For believing I was too good for a public school. And for believing that student debt wasn’t something to be afraid of. And because of my nativity and spoiled mentality, I am now terrified of what happens after graduation.
The weirdest part of all is that when people ask what my biggest regret is, I never say my choice in universities. And though the thought always crosses my mind I quickly recover and reply with a story about an embarrassing boyfriend or hairstyle from middle school. While my debt may keep me awake at night and give me panic attacks during the day, I can never say I regret my decision or if I would even change anything after looking back. The rational side of me attributes it to justification. Debt in all forms is followed with a negative connotation of failure or dependency. Being in debt means I am chained forever to my decision. So in the fear that if I admit my regret I will crumble into a million pieces, and a debt collector will gather my jagged edges in a glass jar as payment, I save myself instead. But the irrational side calls it fate. I was meant to go to that school. The network I have made and the things I have learned were all meant to happen and will someday pay off, monetarily or not. I can’t let me decisions haunt me, so I accept that they were the right ones at the time.
Now in my senior year with graduation just off the horizon I am keeping busy with three part-time jobs, preparing for the collectors to start calling. In this time I have learned the real value of a dollar and how to make one stretch. My budget may be tight but I admit that with a sense of pride. I love my school and who I’ve become in my time there. If my debt has done anything it’s made me a better, albeit anxious, person. I hope my story will help someone considering the cost of student debt. My advice is to make sure you can somehow justify the expense, whether it’s rational or not. Pick a beautiful campus, make a lot of friends, and get your name out there. Whatever you do, don’t let your debt be in vain. Otherwise, you’re looking at one very expensive regret.