By Arthur Vidro
I know many folks who have borrowed money for their higher education, and I’m happy a good portion of them got their money’s worth.
But for some people, borrowing money to attend college is the worst financial move of their lives.
Take, for instance, Ida. She’s a distant relative of mine, and I was able to observe the sad situation from afar. She borrowed and borrowed money to go to college year after year, but ended up without a degree to show for it.
Even before college, Ida was never particularly responsible or mature. Pleasant, clean-cut, kindly, yes. But when it came to scholastic matters, she had zero self-motivation. Even getting out of bed to get to school on time required her mom’s daily help. Jotting a telephone message at home for her working folks was always too much bother, so she wouldn’t do it, but later she couldn’t remember what the callers had said or who the callers were.
Nevertheless, after high school, Ida enrolled in a big university and borrowed a sizable amount of money to pay for it.
Her parents cheered her on.
I’m not privy to her actual grades, but they were never much good. Her attendance record was, at best, spotty. She – like the lad in last week’s column – developed the sleeping patterns of a vampire, staying up very late at night, and then sleeping away the morning and sometimes the early part of the afternoon. She socialized (at night) as much as anybody else, enjoyed her alcohol to excess, and got along with almost everyone. But getting to class and doing the classwork? Too much bother.
I became aware of her situation at some point in her third year, when the school warned that she was flunking out and expressed its reluctance to accept her back for a fourth year.
At this point, absent any changes in her life or sleep patterns, continuing to pay the school would be a waste of money. Continuing to borrow money to pay the school would be ludicrous.
That summer, Ida’s folks enrolled her in a non-credit film course (far away from the university) because that was ostensibly what really interested her; but she was the only student in her class not to complete the final assignment (creating a finished film). It wasn’t illness or injury or lack of funds that kept her from completing the assignment. It was her chronic lack of motivation.
To me, that failure was evidence that it would be futile to send Ida back to school.
Nevertheless, Ida convinced her folks to send her back, and the school to take her back.
None of the money shelled out was Ida’s, unless you count the money that was being borrowed in her name.
After year four, the school told Ida not to return; she had again flunked out.
However, Ida – perhaps spurred by the unwelcome prospect of entering the adult world – got motivated enough to plead with the school for yet another chance, promised that this time everything would be different, that she would be an industrious student and would earn good enough grades to graduate.
The school, to my astonishment, relented.
So a fifth year of education costs was borrowed.
Alas, nothing had changed. Not Ida’s sleep patterns, not Ida’s poor attendance record, not Ida’s failure to complete (or sometimes start) class assignments.
At the end of the fifth year, still no diploma. And again the school invited Ida to stay far away and not return.
About that time my brother briefly encountered Ida, and asked if she had graduated. She said she hadn’t. “Oh,” teased my brother. “Are you on the five-year plan?”
“Looks like a six-year plan,” she replied with a chuckle, as if the matter were of no concern.
I remember pointedly asking Ida myself, “What do you plan to do?” I was expecting an answer along the lines of “find a job” or “join the military.”
Instead, Ida replied, “First I have to figure out what to do about school.”
I didn’t say it aloud, but I knew she had flunked out for good and school was no longer an option.
Toward the end of either year four or year five, Ida’s mom insisted on buying the college yearbook that had Ida’s photo, even though Ida had not graduated with her classmates.
After the fifth year, and Ida nowhere close to a diploma, the parents finally wised up and stopped supporting her schooling.
Instead, they sent her to Europe.
A visit to the old country had originally been discussed as a graduation gift. “But she didn’t graduate,” I said at one point. No matter. This is what Ida wanted, or said she wanted, so this is what her folks gave her.
The way it was explained to me, they would send Ida, at her request, back to the old country, but not for a visit. The old country was where Ida had been born and lived before coming to the States at around age 7, and where she was still a citizen, and still had a grandmother, many uncles and aunts, and more cousins than could be counted.
Her folks thought Ida was going back there to live.
The airplane ticket they purchased was a one-way ticket.
Ida moved in with relatives in the old country. And worked for one of them. After about half a year, when the relatives started to balk at housing and feeding her forever, Ida used all the money she had earned to return to the States and declared that, despite her parents’ understanding of the situation, the return to Europe had always been meant as just a visit.
By now Ida was a legal adult and didn’t need her parents’ signatures or permission for anything. So she applied for an educational loan on her own. She also chose to enroll in a different school, one that was commutable from her parents’ U.S. home.
That would have been, if I counted right, her sixth year in college. The money was definitely borrowed – it’s still being repaid – though I’m not certain it was ever sent to the school.
No matter. Ida somehow couldn’t bring herself to go to that school where she had enrolled on her own.
Instead of commuting to the school where she had enrolled, Ida found friends to put her up.
Soon enough the education loans came due. Sure, first there was a “grace period,” which means for six months after graduation (even though Ida never graduated), no money was due. This made Ida and her mom happy. But throughout those six months, the interest on the loan was accruing.
Then, Ida requested a “deferment,” which her lender granted. A deferment means the borrower is given additional time before the first payment comes due, ostensibly to give the borrower/graduate time to find a job and start earning money.
Ida’s mom was thrilled upon hearing of the deferment and quickly told me about it.
“Isn’t that great news?” she shouted excitedly.
“Well,” I began, “a deferment simply means more money will end up being paid to the borrower, in exchange for a delay of when the first payment –”
“I said,” Ida’s mom interrupted, “isn’t that great news?”
I chose not to offend the aroused tigress. “Er, sure,” I murmured. “Just great ...”
Ida did not use the period of deferment to look for a job. Instead, she spent a year or so bouncing around, living rent-free in various states, first with one friend and then with another, without even looking for work.
To some extent, there is a happy ending. Ida, now about 37, eventually straightened out enough to get by on her own. She works evenings/nights stocking merchandise in a big-box store, which is good for her, since those are her waking hours.
She never returned to school and never graduated.
She continues to sleep into the afternoon most days.
She’s gradually paying off her student loans from 15 to 20 years ago.
But at least she’s getting by. For which I’m happy.
I just don’t see why borrowing money for six years of college was necessary.
If you have consumerism questions, send them to Arthur Vidro care of this newspaper, which publishes his column every weekend.