Food & Culture
Editor’s Note: A Loan and Scared
Young professional deals with overwhelming student debt
By Rob Smith September 11, 2023
Nat Rubio-Licht sat at a desk the day the Supreme Court struck down President Biden’s student debt relief plan and stifled the urge to scream.
Rubio-Licht, a young journalist with two bylines in this education-themed issue of Seattle magazine (“Higher-Ed Dread,” (page 106), and “Where Innovation Meets Education,” (page 88) owes the United States government $55,000 in student loans. Rubio-Licht, who uses nonbinary pronouns, spent a year anxiously anticipating the Court’s decision.
The wave of relief they felt when the Biden administration first announced its plan to slash student debt came crashing down last June. They weren’t surprised. Rubio-Licht knew it was the most likely scenario. But now, saddled with debt that they must begin paying back in October after a year-long pause, Rubio-Licht wonders how they’ll get ahead.
“It’s a morbid joke incredibly familiar with anyone in my generation when we cross a busy street,” Rubio-Licht says. “‘Hit me with your car. I dare you. You’ll pay off my student loans.’”
Rubio-Licht isn’t angry. They’ve got a great job (in Los Angeles), a good salary, and promising career opportunities. After all, nobody forced the Syracuse University journalism grad to take out loans to attend college. But that’s not the point.
For decades, the message has been simple and direct: Education matters. You must attend college. It will open your mind and lead to higher earnings throughout your life. Studies show that college grads earn on average more than $1 million during the course of their lifetimes than those without degrees.
It’s a perfect storm of our own making. And it’s a lot more complicated than simply blaming the borrower.
Yet college has become ridiculously expensive. During my freshman year at the University of Oregon, $1,000 covered an entire year’s tuition and fees. It’s more than $15,000 today.
Predatory lenders have taken notice. Consumer financial services company Bankrate notes that many student loans feature double-digit interest rates up to 35% and origination fees around 5%. Debt relief scams are also on the rise. It’s a perfect storm of our own making. And it’s a lot more complicated than simply blaming the borrower.
Rubio-Licht’s parents had saved some money to help, but loans were still necessary. Rubio-Licht remembers taking out more than $18,000 in loans before they were even old enough to vote. They worked “endlessly” while at Syracuse, taking 20 credits each semester (a full course load is 12). They toiled 30 hours a week at a coffee shop, and 20 more at The Daily Orange, the student newspaper, in order to graduate a year early. They enjoyed college, “but I can’t say it was the most enjoyable experience,” Rubio-Licht recalls. “But I did learn to work.”
Despite having a full-time job, Rubio-Licht works several side hustles to earn money to pay the debt. It’s a goal they think about every day.
“My student loan debt has made me see the world differently. I look at a nice car, a friend’s trip to Europe, a house or a piece of jewelry or luxury bag, and think that could pay off (a percentage) of my loans,” Rubio-Licht says.
“It may sound like I’m bitter. I’m not. In fact, I consider myself very lucky. I am in a much better place than a lot of other 20-somethings staring down their immeasurable debt balances. But that doesn’t mean I’m not scared.”