For Some Young People, a College Degree Is Not Worth the Debt

When Alex, my elder child, who identifies as nonbinary, was ready to apply for college in 2022, I felt ill-equipped to help them navigate the process. I was raised in a low-income household and had been unprepared to figure out how to make my own college experience affordable.

I have been a single parent for 17 years. I have never earned enough income to have to make payments on my student loans, which total $81,000 for two degrees. I assumed I would carry the debt to my grave.

Alex is neurodivergent — their brain processes differently than what is considered to be typical for a majority of people — so we looked for schools that centered hands-on learning, where they would have a better chance of succeeding. We landed on the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. The application of the Western Undergraduate Exchange — an agreement among various public colleges in the West — reduced the annual out-of-state tuition costs to $13,000 from $29,000. But even after financial aid was applied, the remaining cost of attendance came to $15,500 per year.

Alex’s financial aid package included $5,500 in federal student loans — the maximum that freshmen can take out. The rest was designated to me in the form of Parent PLUS loans, which allows parents to borrow money directly from the federal government. I was floored. After filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, my expected family contribution was zero. How could the school and the loan carrier know I didn’t have money and still approve me for a debt of $40,000 over four years?

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