“I signed my life away when I was seventeen, and I didn’t realize what I was doing.”
That was four years ago in Charlestown, New Hampshire. Looking first at his mother, then at the bank loan officer, then back at his mother, as a high school senior Quinn Culton Prentiss Sturgill signed the last piece of paper finalizing the $15,000 student loan for him to enroll in Keene State College.
He was excited, but nervous. This loan represented the next four years of his life. It was an investment, Sturgill recalled. College was important. According to a poll by the Huffington Post, 63 percent of Americans said a college education is necessary.
He was right.
The problem was that the same poll found that 62 percent also said most people cannot afford the cost of a public college education.
“It’s very important to have a college degree. It’s the only way to really make money. But the only way you can get the chance to make any money is by having money in the first place,” he said. He readjusted his hat when he said those words, simply lifted it, then placed it in the same spot, a motion he does when he’s upset about something.
“I wasn’t able to pay. I had an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) of zero dollars, which meant I had no money from anyone to go to school. I did it all on my own,” he said. With luck, he would be able to graduate in four years and start paying back his debts.
But it did not work that way.
Nearly four years later, Sturgill, 21, is one of the millions of Americans who has over $10,000 in outstanding student debt. Tall and thin, he speaks softly, and offers opinions only when asked. With closely cropped black hair, he has a slight chip in his front tooth and until recently, his black rimmed glasses needed packaging tape to stay together.
Sturgill was raised by a single mother in Charlestown, N.H., and moved multiple times before age ten. Eventually, his mother married when he was 14 and she gave birth to his two half siblings. Sturgill does not like to talk about his mom. For the past couple years, she has been ill, according to Sturgill, receiving blood transfusions every few weeks. She always does as much as she can to help him, but it is difficult with two children under the age of 12, he said.
College was always Sturgill’s goal, but there was no way he would be able to afford it out-of-pocket. According to Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, Sturgill came from an impoverished family, which qualified him for financial aid, but not nearly enough. He, like many others, had to turn to student loans on top of financial aid. He is not the only one who needs both types of aid to go to school. According to an article in Time Magazine, fewer “than 0.3 percent of students receive enough scholarships and grants to cover the full cost of attendance…Only 1 percent of students have 90 percent of their costs covered, while 3.4 percent have 75 percent of their costs covered.” This means that almost everyone who expected their costs to be covered by financial aid alone were wrong. It’s next to impossible to get a free ride on financial aid and grants.
The summer after freshman year, Sturgill lived in an apartment, worked as a deli clerk and waited for sophomore year. His apartment’s lease ran out in August and he had a housing spot guaranteed in Pondside One with some friends. However, weeks before move-in day, he received a letter saying he was $200 short of the full cost of housing. He scrambled to get the money together, but when he finally did, he discovered he had lost his housing and was placed on a waiting list to move onto campus. “I never got a phone call, never got an email and suddenly the semester was starting and I had to move out of my apartment…I was working thirty-eight hours a week to make my rent and I was enrolled in four classes, which I couldn’t keep up with so I dropped down to a part-time student.”
He was angry. He felt cheated. Within a month, he had lost his apartment and was still working. He had classes and nowhere to come home to. But dropping down to a part-time student directly affected his financial aid, leaving him with even more debt. “At the time, thank god my ex-girlfriend who knew my situation, let me stay with her.” For an entire semester, he worked between 30-40 hours a week, couch-surfed and was enrolled in two classes.
“Eventually, on top of the fact that I dropped down to a part time student, I was already on academic probation because I had too much fun in freshman year…a miscommunication and some technical difficulties led to me not getting the grade I needed in one of my classes to allow me to keep the financial aid I needed. And I haven’t gone back. And I can’t go back, and life sucks.” He dropped out of KSC in December of 2011. A few weeks later, he began receiving phone calls asking when he would start to pay back his student loans. “I tell them that I’m doing what I can, but I’m not very wealthy… They offered me a financial assistance payment plan. All my loans were consolidated and the minimum payment went down, but I still can’t start.”
He has not made a single payment. He hasn’t been able to. According to CNBC, in 2011 only 53 percent of people with outstanding student debt were making payments on their loans. The other “47 percent were either still in school, or in deferral, forbearance or grace periods.” Sturgill was in the 47 percent. He lives hand-to-mouth, on nearly minimum wage, struggling to make rent every month. Sturgill wants to go back to school, but getting started is the hardest part. “I’m trying to save, but my priority is trying to find another place to live. That’s the cycle, I’ll get close to getting back on my feet and being able to start to pay back loans, but then I need to find another place to live,” he said.
The cycle started when he had to drop out halfway through sophomore year.
“The first half of sophomore year, I just continued to work and found an apartment for that year…But I had an irresponsible roommate who never paid rent so we got evicted…” Sturgill paused, “But I got a positive recommendation from that place,” he smiled.
“Next, I went and lived with some friends of mine for five or six months, and once again, after a few months we found out that a roommate was more than a thousand dollars in debt to the landlord. We didn’t get evicted, but they wouldn’t let us renew our lease.” From there, Sturgill couch-surfed for a few weeks, trying to find a new place to live. Eventually, he managed to purchase a cheap car and was granted a few months asylum in his aunt’s lake house in Alstead. It didn’t last a month. Two weeks after moving, he got into a minor car accident. His car was totalled and he was left homeless again. Back to couch surfing.
Though he managed to find a place last summer, he is already being asked to leave by the landlord.
“One of the initial people I went in to get an apartment with moved out, and the people we found to replace him were incredibly irresponsible, which eventually led to us not getting evicted, but the landlord asking us to leave.” Again. The cycle in part is because of roommates. It’s difficult to find reliable people to live with when you’re not in school, so you don’t get a lot of options, Sturgill said.
Now, he’s still there, waiting for the lease to run out or to get evicted. He’s trying to get back into school, but it’s tough. “I’d want to go back to school given the opportunity. I’ve been trying to, my plan’s been right now to take the money I get back from my security deposit to take one class next semester, to at least get my foot in the door, so I’m at least making progress.”
When asked about what he could’ve done to avoid the situation as a whole, he gets a distant look.
“I could’ve probably taken a year off before I went in,” Sturgill said, “so that I could’ve solidified myself with employment, just in case something went awry…and if I had taken a year off, I could’ve taken more time to figure out what I wanted to do.”
He entered college without a clue as to what he wanted to do. “I wasn’t declared, I was just taking classes to see what I wanted to do,” Sturgill said.
He ended up taking classes varying from design, to art, to writing in the hope of finding his muse. He didn’t find it before he had to leave.
“I work at a deli in a grocery store making mediocre pay, jumping from house to house because I can’t find anyone reliable to live with and I don’t make enough money to live on my own…” Sturgill frowned, almost as if he were figuring it out as he said it. “College isn’t affordable at all, it’s a little outrageous. Yes, the salary you might get might make it worth it within a couple of years out of college, but out-of-state tuition is what, twenty-thousand dollars a year? Unless it’s the case where you have some money coming to you, getting out of college eighty-thousand dollars in debt is not a good way to start your life.” Up until it closed last month, Sturgill was employed at Shaw’s supermarket as a deli clerk. Now he works at Hannaford’s as a deli clerk. He still wants to go to college.
Augustus Stahl can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org