NYU Students: Debt and Debtor

NYU is number one in student debt. But is it really worth it?

NYU Students: Debt and Debtor
Viktor Koen

Walking around Greenwich Village, it's easy to find reinforcement for the popular stereotype of New York University as a rich-kid school. On a fall evening, the bars and restaurants near the campus can feel completely overrun with a swarming mass of fashionably dressed students splashing out on Mom and Dad's credit card, apparently heedless of the recession and living the downtown dream.

Lyndsey always resented that stereotype. That's not to say she doesn't acknowledge some truth to it, but she knew it didn't apply to her. Like so many undergraduates, she came to NYU because it was her dream school, but it wasn't a dream she came by easily. Lyndsey financed her NYU education in large part with loans, which she is now paying back a little at a time.

When Lyndsey is done paying them, she will be 54 years old, and she will have spent more than a third of a million dollars on her undergraduate education.

Andrew Jenks and masked NYU students during the ‘Casualties of Debt’ protest.
Andrew Jenks
Andrew Jenks and masked NYU students during the ‘Casualties of Debt’ protest.

During her college years, as it became clear to Lyndsey just how deep in the hole her education was going to put her, she dialed back her living expenses to a bare-bones survival budget. She moved out of the overpriced university dorm and into a tiny apartment off campus, dropped out of the meal plan, and put herself on a strict $20-a-week regimen for food and entertainment.

"I joined clubs just because they had food at the meetings," Lyndsey says. "I knew all the popular meeting places, and I always had tinfoil and plastic bags with me to snatch up anything on the table. If I came across a leftover pizza, I'd take the whole thing and put it in my bag. When I did buy groceries, it was in Chinatown, and I'd haggle for everything. I'd buy things that I didn't even know what they were, just because they were cheap."

Upon graduation, it became obvious to Lyndsey that what she wanted to do with her life—why she'd gone to NYU and into debt—wasn't going to pay the bills as her loans started coming due.

"My dream career was to be a cinematographer on films about nature, to be involved with shaping how the public perceives nature and our relation to it," Lyndsey says. "It became clear that that wasn't going to pay nearly enough. I had a six-month grace period after graduation to get a job and start paying back those loans, so I got work that paid better in a field completely different from why I wanted to go to school in the first place."

And so began a blurred, twilight existence that has lasted years for Lyndsey. She works nine-to-five in a surgical-simulation lab at a medical school, then rushes home to immediately start her other job, working until 10:30 as tech support for a company in California.

"It's pretty murderous," Lyndsey says. "There's no time in my day to think, to breathe, to eat, to shop for groceries. Weekends I try to catch up on laundry, get groceries, cook as much as possible, and see my friends if I can."

Still, the punishing work schedule was better than the alternatives Lyndsey sometimes considered. "I'm basically trying to avoid the more extreme ways of doing it: stripping and prostitution," she says. "Stuff you can't tell your parents and your friends about."

Working 70 hours a week, Lyndsey was able to stay on top of her $1,232 monthly loan repayment and even put a little aside. But it wasn't sustainable: She was chronically exhausted, her relationships were suffering, and she was miserable. Earlier this year, her boyfriend moved out, and she found herself scrambling to make rent by placing a rotating series of Craigslist roommates on the couch of her one-bedroom apartment in South Williamsburg.

Now the possibility of getting behind on her loans, or even defaulting, seems perilously close. But there's no way out. Bankruptcy wouldn't clear her obligations, and if she falls behind, the bank wouldn't just come after her, but also after her mother, who took on much of the debt. Their salaries could be garnished and so could her mother's Social Security benefits.

Lyndsey doesn't want to use her full name in this story. She's worried that if she ever does default on her loans, her comments might be used against her in court. Worse yet, she says, they could be used against her mother.

But even trapped in this untenable situation, when she's asked if she wishes she hadn't gone to NYU in the first place, Lyndsey doesn't have a simple answer. She's angry at NYU, feels used and misled by the school, sure. Yet she's got nothing but good things to say about the schooling she received.

"Would I want a different education? I have to say, the education I got was pretty great," Lyndsey says. "I got to know this city that I love. And going to NYU has made people look at my résumé that wouldn't have if I went to UMass Amherst. Do I wish I hadn't gone to NYU at all? It's not that easy."

In the clutches of the great recession, after the home-borrowing bubble burst, the education-borrowing bubble lives on. Teenagers continue to borrow tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance their educations, even as they increasingly find there aren't jobs waiting for them on the other side. Down in Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street protesters are talking about demanding student-loan forgiveness.

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