When I graduated from university in 1999, I was 22 years old with a degree in computer science, about forty thousand dollars in debt**, and close to no idea what to do next.
My more ambitious tech friends had positions lined up prior to graduation. Some were going to big software companies — Microsoft, Oracle, Sun — while others headed into consulting.
Not me, though. I thought that after seventeen straight years of school I deserved some time off. I’d worked hard, graduating in the top 14% of my class — magna cum laude, baby! — and that meant it was time to take a break.
So I took one. That summer I stayed in my college’s dormitories for free while working a part-time zero-stress campus job. Outside of work, my time went into hanging with my girlfriend (now my wife), jogging outside every day for exercise, and playing Quake III and Half-Life on my PC. I remember it as one of the best three month periods of my existence.
In the middle of August, when freshman orientation was just around the corner, it occurred to me that I was about to get kicked off campus — a big problem. Fortunately, an old college friend called out of the blue. He’d moved to San Francisco and one of his roommates had abruptly disappeared. This opened a room up, and would I like to come and take the spot? I said, sure, but I can’t pay rent because I don’t have a job yet.
No problem, he said. Haven’t you heard? Silicon Valley and SF are booming. They really need computer guys right now. If you know how to Control-Alt-Delete, someone will hire you.
I didn’t hesitate. I said goodbye to my girlfriend. I packed my old Chevy Nova full of everything I owned. I begged my Dad to loan me $300 for gas.
Then I drove for a week straight down I-80 from the east coast to the least coast, praying all the while that my old shitbox of a car would hold together just long enough to make it.
Most of the enormous 40K graduation debt came about via university ‘needs-based assistance’ financial aid policies.
My parents divorced when I was 10. Mom earned just about nothing. Dad finished a 2-year vocational program, got a degree in mechanical drafting, and went on to make decent money. I lived with Mom.
Here’s the thing: My Dad made about 75K. Based on the financial aid formulas, my university expected him to contribute 7.5K a year or so. He told me “I’ll give you $500/ yr and no more. $500 is an amount that works for me.”
I tried to explain that financial aid was needs-based and the data he provided essentially showed that I don’t “need” as much because he could afford to pay 8K/yr. His decision had the direct effect of adding 7K to the amount I personally had to cover each year, which I did so via additional loans. I asked him several times to stop filling the financial aid forms out because then I could make a case for abandonment, at which point the university would open up other grant options to me based purely on my mom’s (poverty-level) income (in other words, I would again meet the need-based requirements).
My Dad wouldn’t hear of it. He was going to do his part and contribute that $500. He wasn’t some child-abandoning vagrant. No, sir. He owned up to spawning me, and he would therefore do his duty and help me pay for college.
In the end, this whole mess had the end result of effectively tripling my debt by the time I was done with my bachelors program. I might have otherwise graduated down only 12-14K, a much more reasonable sum to owe over four years of school.
Listen, I don’t blame my Dad for not wanting to pay 7.5K/yr for my education. He’s a decent guy and his intentions were good. However, he should have swallowed his pride and let me claim that he had disappeared forever. Nobody from the university ever knew who he was or gave a third of a turd about his pride or willingness to help out.
To them, he was just another faceless Male Parent on an aid form that some administrator processed as a variable in an equation. It’s not a personal thing. No one was judging him.
My father just couldn’t accept that, though, and I paid the price.