Balancing on the blissful cusp between high school and college, I notice a few things beginning to change. I savor the time spent washing beer off these golf carts late at night; this may be my last "kid" job. The wall that always sat at the end of the season — another year-long block of mandatory education — has been replaced by looming mystery. The summer seems to be thinning. All these faces that have lined my life like static are beginning to turn in different directions; we're all gearing up for ... something else.
But it's all to be expected, and it's all exciting. My high school teachers with their "glory days" stories, all the movies I snuck into, the university representatives that would show up during lunch hour to recruit — they all lent their part to how I've envisioned college life. But I notice another change, something unglamorous and mostly unspoken, that I'm not quite prepared for.
An e-mail tells me that the financial aid I applied for months ago has come through. Good news! And just in time. But a closer look reveals that it won't cover everything. Leaning closer to the screen, I notice the small print saying something about loans. There's a Perkins loan, a subsidized loan and an unsubsidized loan. One of them leads through a maze of paperwork — part of which says I need two references outside my immediate family in case of default — and the others don't seem to require any brainpower on my part. They'll simply latch onto my bill; I needn't worry about it right now.
But this is all normal, right? Everyone takes loans, everyone graduates wearing a hair shirt of debt beneath their silky gown. New questions start forming in my head: Is there interest on these loans? When will I have to pay them back? What if I'm not able to in time — have I picked a major that will even allow me to pay them back? Dream colleges are cheap; it's when they become real that you start to comprehend how pricey your dreams have been.
I don't want my degree to be a glorified receipt for an education I will not have even begun to pay off. Reality begins to conflict with my ideals; the expense of my dream school could become a roadblock in front of my dream career. It's too late now, but I entertain the thought: Would I have chosen a different route had I considered the future implications of stepping into debt? Maybe I'm overreacting. Or maybe I should have washed more golf carts.
That was three years ago. I've since seen friends return from their dream schools prematurely, having been lapped by debt and forced to catch up. Others have moved from community colleges to those schools they were hesitant to invest in at first. As for myself, I've found that college is an enriching, challenging and, yes, expensive experience that requires careful balance. The balance between what professions I'd enjoy and what professions are in demand. The balance between working to save money and writing checks for courses. The balance between making the most of my time in college, and making sure I'll be able to make the most out of adulthood.
And balance is what it comes down to, really. Dealing with loans and understanding the important balance between dreams and reality is like a course all its own. You can call it Intro to Adulthood. And it requires some prerequisites: become informed; know what you want, how much it costs, and how much you're willing to pay. As with any investment you make, an understanding of the terms and future outlook should play into your decision.
Paul Kitti is a Metro Times editorial intern. He is starting his senior year at the University of Michigan. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.