Editor’s note: In our continuing investigation into the status of student loans and the young graduates they burden, the EthnoBlog’s Edwin Okong’o sat down for some straight talking about money management and the cost of education with one such debtor, Patrick Cushing. Pat is a product manager for Wikinvest, a startup web/finance enterprise in San Francisco, and graduated from Columbia University in 2006.

EthnoBlog: So we’re here to talk about the great American dream that begins when you get student loans.

Patrick Cushing: Oh, that dream? All right. You don’t have to start paying off your loans until you graduate. And so the way that, at least in my case, it worked for a school like Columbia, is they determine what your parents make and they say, you know, this is what your parents can afford. And then for everything else they’ll offer up some sort of assistance whether it’s a grant or some sort of loan program.

I think the key though is that where they offer up what your parents can afford is usually a far cry from what they can actually afford. So it’s kind of like the hidden loans, I think, a lot of times. And these are things that are taken out in my parents’ name but there’s sort of an agreement between them and me that I would take on the loans as soon as I graduate. So I think those are the loans that are probably the biggest issue for me.

EB: After graduation, how hard has it been for you to take care of them?

PC: My first year after graduation I worked in India. I deferred all loans because I was paid in rupees and couldn’t come nearly close to paying them off, and because I was paid in rupees, I qualified as being under the poverty line, so that was good. Paying off since, it’s my largest bill of the month, second only to my rent. I have a job that covers it but doesn’t leave me much extra, so any sort of job choice I have factors in rent, student loans and everything else after that.

I ended up finding a job as soon as I got back, and since I had another job and both covered those loans, I think what I could have done is really what I’ve tried to avoid doing the whole time which is like, selling out and taking the investment banking or consulting job. I always tried to find jobs that I found interesting and that would at least cover those expenses, instead of having to take completely corporate-type jobs. I wouldn’t want to take any of those.

EB: From your background, what is your family background—a lot of money, a little bit of money?

PC: Neither of my parents went to college. Both really working-class. My mother just recently got her college degree after going to school part-time for ten to fifteen years. My dad just went to a trade school. Right now, in the winter he drives trucks for trucking companies, and during the summer he works on a family carnival. So neither are cash cows. We’ll say working-class. Blue collar.

EB: What did they say when you told them you were going to take all these loans to go to school, and that they might be partly responsible for them?

PC: My dad entirely disagreed with my choice. My mom has always been the one who pushed me to take on academic challenges or levels that were probably beyond our means, with the idea that education is something that eventually uplifts you even if you get stuck with all these loans. The assumption was that we would figure it out, and whatever that cost would be, we would just have to work it out, whether that meant me taking loans in their name and just paying them back, or working with the school to get better financial aid.

EB: Your mom thought you were getting something big out of your education. Do you feel that way? Does the rest of your family?

PC: I still do, yeah. I don’t think I would have changed my decision to go to Columbia, no matter what the price was. Coming from my background, I think it was the easiest way to sort of take that next step toward my career or other aspirations I might have. It does come with a rubber stamp to it, as bullshit as it might be, and it was just a decision I was willing to make.

It’s a good question, though. I think my dad’s always been hesitant to pay for education just because he was someone who went to public school then to trade school. He didn’t really, other than probably a few hundred dollars for trade school, pay too much. I think he would now think it’s worth it. I think their reaction would probably be different just given that opportunities I’ve gotten at Columbia have taken me far away from them. Whether it’s moving to California, going to India, working in Scotland, I think that way they wouldn’t be psyched, but I think the fact that I’m the one that gets to do that I think they’re happy for. It’s a financial burden on the family much like anything else.

EB: Any loans that you took out, do you look back on and sort of go, “I shouldn’t have taken that one”?

PC: Yeah, I mean I think what’s in my name is really reasonable. Whenever you hear people talk about government-supported ones, the Perkins or Stafford Loans, those are really reasonable. I think work-study, again, pretty reasonable. I have my issues with work-study but we can leave that there. Those end up being like a few thousand dollars a year, three thousand dollars tops. But because they cap all those federally subsidized ones, I think the expected parent contribution is where things get kind of dicey.

EB: If you were given the power right now to change the student loan system in this country, what would you do?

PC: I’ve thought about this a lot, so I want to approach several parts of it.

I think there should be a cap on the amount of student loans you’re allowed to take out. There’s a certain point at which people are taking out student loans where, if they have to take out that level of loan, it’s obvious that their financial needs aren’t being met by the school. I think people are going to strive to get into whatever school they can and a lot of people, like myself, will ignore the financial cost. And I think they should. I don’t think there should be a prohibitive cost to any education. I’d see a cap as a natural check to the system not working correctly. So if it ends up being that you have to take a loan out in your dog’s name and your sister’s name and your father’s name, whatever; obviously there’s something wrong if you have to go through that many hoops. So I think the simplest solution would be to think of some sort of cap on what people would be required to pay for a school.

EB: If there’s a cap doesn’t that mean that even if there’s a greater need that you can’t take out more? People argue that there should be more money available. When I was going to college, the maximum that I was able to take out was $18,000 a year, and I found myself needing more than that. What do you think about people in those situations?

PC: I think this is something to be argued in favor of your case. If you find yourself having to go above that cap, there should be a point at which the school or the government has to step in. If you’re doing what you can to cover your eighteen grand and you still have to go and take out other loans, I think that’s an indication that there’s something wrong with the system. At that point I think there should be a cap where either the school or the government steps in and is like, OK, you’ve gone past what we allotted you, you’ve done everything reasonable and now you have to go through these hoops with your dog, cat, mother, brother, sister, whatever. Somebody should step in and cover the rest of the cost.

EB: Do you think the system prepares students about how the loans work? Do you think they spend enough time informing them about what it really means to take a loan like that?

PC: I would say that in my own case it wasn’t something I really confronted head on until I graduated. You know, in college I was aware of it and did things like become an RA to help limit costs, and other little things here and there. You’re not really aware about what sort of burden is placed on you until you’re out and you really have to confront it. I’m sure there were materials for me to go out and seek out in my undergrad studies that I could have used to get a better grip around my student aid. Maybe being forced to know a little bit more about my loan would have helped.

EB: So how much do you owe in student loans now?

PC: Under my name I think there’s a reasonable $12-15,000. I know what’s under both of my parents’ names that I’m responsible for adds up to somewhere around $60,000.

EB: I wanted to follow up on what you alluded to with work-study. What are your comments on that system? How did it factor into your college life? What are your opinions on how financial aid is dealt out through particular programs like work-study?

PC: I don’t think, from my perspective, that work-study was helpful in any way whatsoever. I think more than anything it felt like a system to put me in my place as the kid who went to school and had to work at school. I think that Columbia is a unique school in that not everybody’s working. Especially when you see a lot of other schools where everybody’s working, at Columbia if you had work-study you were kind of singled out as the person who would be handling boxes for the business school or working Saturdays for the housing department, working for the library, whatever. That wasn’t that big of a deal but I think more than anything I think it restricts, hinders students who already don’t have an advantage.

For the kids who are struggling financially to do well at school, to stick a 10 or 12-hour commitment onto them, to have them do a job that doesn’t add any sort of skills, you’re not really learning anything in terms of what you’re going to use later on in life. I just didn’t feel I got anything out of it. It was more of a burden and barrier to being involved in other activities or being closer to my professors. Or, you know, just being able to study more would have been nice.

I also think the other limits on the way they execute the work-study program are really, really flawed. For example, I worked for an office in the business school for two straight years, and I reached a point where I was getting paid like $12 an hour, and they actually cap your pay, so no matter how well I did I couldn’t stay with work-study. My senior year, I found another internship that paid a lot more than that. I had to go off campus and lose my aid as part of work-study, but it just didn’t make sense for me to stay in a job where both my pay and my hours are capped. I couldn’t get paid more and I couldn’t work any more. It was like a dead-end job two years into it. That didn’t make any sense whatsoever.

The work-study program at Columbia was really the first time I felt poor. I was of the lower class at my high school, too, but I NEVER felt like the poor kid until the work-study program, because it felt like the poor stamp in a way that loans and grants never did.

EB: Do you think there’s any stigma associated with disclosing large amounts of student loans? I mean besides just the financial burden, the idea that you know you’re still carrying around this baggage from when you were 20? How much class stigma factors into that?

PC: Do I volunteer to people how much I have in loans? No. Will I probably not really love my Alma Mater until they’re gone? Yeah. I don’t think I can really appreciate or be thankful for Columbia until the loans are gone. Of course I appreciate the rubber stamp they put on me, being able to get whatever investment banking job I wanted, but it kind of puts a little damper on the value of the education no matter what.

EB: Do you think that the cost to earnings ratio of how much debt you had to go into versus how much you’re making now is proportional? Or do you feel that it’s imbalanced?

PC: I don’t know if cost to earnings is the right way to put it. Cost to opportunity maybe. I think just going to a school that’s that elite might not open me up to riches beyond my wildest dreams, but opportunities and connections and amazing people that you meet through it. I don’t think if I’d gone to Boston College I’d have met the same people, even if it might have cost me just as much. I think it opens up a different world, whether or not that world comes with dollar signs attached to it in the same way. And I think for that, yeah, totally worth it. I would take, you know, having access to that world even if it meant carrying around this debt. I just won’t be donating too much to Columbia in the meantime.