NYU Students: Debt and Debtor

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

Other NYU programs, if equally well-regarded, can't promise the same financial return on investment, but that doesn't stop students from signing on for the ride. Ryan Hamelin, in his last semester of a film and television major at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, has borrowed roughly $24,000 per semester to finance his education but feels confident he'll be able to make the $1,000 monthly payments when he graduates. He's pulling together his portfolio in the hopes of getting some directing gigs. If that doesn't work out, he plans to fall back on crewing for shoots across the city, something he has already done a bit of.

Early last semester, the reality of his financial situation—even for graduates of the celebrated Tisch program, the jackpot of a directorial gig right out of college is rare—finally sank in. "I was thinking, 'Shit, why did I do this?'" Hamelin says. "I was having anxiety attacks about it."

Now, with a few months to go before his first payments come due, Hamelin is more reconciled to where his path has taken him. "Once this kicks in, I don't see myself being able to do the things I want to be doing for a number of years, which is really a drag," he says. "But that's what you get when you go to NYU: You get NYU, and you get paying for NYU. I'm not going to go down to Wall Street and yell and scream and hope that will make my debt go away."

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.

Lyndsey says she isn't wishing for her debt to go away. "I never want to not pay for what I got," she says. But there are government actions that would make her life easier without giving her a free ride.

"Even changing the interest rate on the PLUS Loans to 3 percent would cut my repayment time in half," Lyndsey says. "Or give us the right to refinance. Banks are borrowing money for free right now, and students are locked in to paying banks back at 8 percent or more."

Since she graduated, Lyndsey has paid back about $40,000 of her loan. But because her loans carry 8.5 percent interest with no chance of refinancing, that $40,000 has put only a tiny dent in her actual balance.

"Do I wish I had been more savvy about how financial aid worked? Of course I do," Lyndsey says. "I'm now guaranteed locked into the system for the rest of my working life to make money for Citibank."

And sure, sometimes Lyndsey fantasizes about what would have happened if she hadn't gone to NYU or to college at all, if she had instead spent her money on high-end film equipment and made the kind of documentaries she had in mind when she enrolled at the university.

But like many NYU students mired in debt, she doesn't think that should be the only choice—between an NYU education and a lifetime of debt or forgoing the university entirely.

"There are so many people with so much potential, and they're going to school because they have visions of what they want to do and be and accomplish and contribute to the world," Lyndsey says. And because of the way we're doing things now, they get locked down, and they have to pay these bills, and they don't get to follow through. And that's a waste."


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