It’s Thanksgiving, and I have a lot to be thankful for. After fifteen years, I want to add an unusual item to my gratitude list: my student loans.
Without loans, I would not have been able to attend law school. And attending law school has been the central, formative experience of my adult life – in terms of cultivating skills, confidence, my career, and even – indirectly – meeting my husband.
At first, the loan payments were painful. I graduated from law school in 1999, unhappy with my career prospects despite being very near the top of my class (my fault for chasing the wrong jobs, not my school’s or the economy’s fault), and I was generally unhappy with life. I was so undecided about my career goals (and personal life) that I could not even commit to taking any particular state’s bar exam. I was fortunate to find a job that played to my strengths and passions for law school administration. But it paid $35,000 a year and my student loan payments were $800 a month. (Even back in the “olden” days, $35K didn’t get you very far).
But a year or so later, I was making twice that, and was also eligible to consolidate my loans, changing the terms from 10 to 20 years and the interest rate from 8 percent (yes, you read that right) to under 4 percent. Suddenly, $300/month wasn’t so bad. It also brought an income tax deduction for some years. In fact, after a while, my loan payments even – thanks to automatic debit – fell off my radar. I never raced to repay it because so many told me not to bother because of the low interest rate. (See this LA times article).
Until about four months ago, when I realized I had only $5,000 left on those loans. I decided to kill it all off by the end of 2012. Just because. And that’s what I did yesterday – I made my final payment on my law school loans.
I was never bitter about the cost of law school. True, this was a long time ago so my tuition/expenses were $24,000 a year and not $50,000 a year like many law students face today. I worked two jobs throughout law school, even starting law school part time and working full time in advertising. I always held one paid job (waitressing) and one free job (internship/clerkship) while in my second and third years of law school, in addition to law review and student government and everything else. But I never regretted it – even though my career trajectory was not what I expected at first, the experience of getting to choose for myself – rather than following the seemingly predetermined path urged by the Career Services Office – has enriched the quality of my life and my career.
I will probably forget how long it took me to pay off my student loans, just as – for many years – the payments have slipped my radar. But I share this experience with you as encouragement, that you too will – if you really want to go to law school – be thankful for the student loans that allow it to happen, and that you too will one day be done with your payments.
If you plan to go into public service, you could be done with your payments even more quickly, thanks to Loan Repayment Assistance Programs.