I have $23,316.51 in student loan debt. All federal and, thankfully, still in the grace period. The good about my situation is that I’ve borrowed less than the average American student and successfully avoided predatory lenderslike Sallie Mae. The bad is that none of those practicalities feel important when you’re fresh out of college and have more money in debt than you’ve ever had in a bank account.

My very naive 18-year-old self nearly signed on for six figures of private loans because a financial aid advisor at the college of my choice told me loans were a valid option after refusing to budge on the minuscule scholarship they’d awarded me. I can thank my mom and high school guidance counselor for walking me off that ledge. But there are millions of students like me who don’t get that guidance and end up saddled with debt that they’ll struggle to pull themselves out of for years. It’s not too hard to buy into the idea that agreeing to a loan you can’t afford is fine because “everyone has student loans” and it’s easy to push aside the increasing dollar amount while you’re getting your degree. Then you graduate, you can’t avoid it, and there’s no one to help you.

I debated including the exact dollar amount of the money I owe in this newsletter because of all the side-stepping we’re taught to do around money and debt in particular. The logic seems to be that if everyone’s got it, what’s the point of getting into a pissing contest about who has more? Acknowledging the ballooning student loan crisis in this country has been done before, but I’ve found that students and grads tend to avoid the hard conversations about it and stick to jokes.

So to my fellow first-gens out there currently racking up or paying off debt, I’m laying mine out on the table. I think we should talk about it before it overwhelms us.

As much as we avoid talking seriously about our own loans, we also ravenously consume content about how people deal with their debt. There’s no faster way to get my Twitter timeline riled up than with a money diary from someone explaining how they paid off their debt in two years by working really hard and having their parents pay their rent and all their bills. I confess to consuming that content myself, but not enough of it gets at the real fear and confusion so many of us feel about our loans.

I can’t emphasize enough how little most people know about student loans when they take them on. Whether they’re first-generation or not, students of all backgrounds feel ill-equipped to handle student loans responsibly, according to a study in the Journal of College Student Development, but first-gens are borrowing more and have fewer support systems in place to pay it back. Nearly 74 percent of first-generation students in the class of 2015–16 borrowed money for undergrad, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, compared to 64 percent of their non-first gen peers.

There’s a lot of discussion about financial literacy for first-generation students but the conversation always seems to start and end with FAFSA. The fact is that we need better resources at every step of the higher education journey for first-gen college students with loans. It’s not enough to do one 20-minute virtual loan counseling session when you start college and another when you end. While it is confusing to navigate financial aid on your own, I don’t think you can make the argument that it’s any more important than loan counseling.

I know I could’ve benefitted from regular, personalized counseling throughout my college career. Maybe then I wouldn’t be left to figure it out with a mix of Youtube videos, personal finance blogs, and Excel budget templates. Here’s hoping this won’t be me:

Thanks for reading,


?Good reads:

  • “Rethinking college, or at least fall semester, during coronavirus? You risk not graduating,” by Chris Quintana for USA Today
  • ‘It’s just way too much to take on’: School systems struggle with the politics of reopening by Nicole Gaudiano and Dan Goldberg for Politico
  • “For teen activists, defunding school police has been a decade in the making,” by Sonali Kohli and Howard Blume for Los Angeles Times
  • “Expecting students to play it safe if colleges reopen is a fantasy,” by Laurence Steinberg for New York Times

A journalist and first-generation college student originally from Yonkers, N.Y., Zipporah is in her last year at Northeastern University. She has reported for The Boston Globe, The Chronicle of Higher Education,...