Crushing Burden of Student Debt

Oct 4, 2019

The role of scholarships in Westover's education played a major role in her life. Not all students fare as well given the rates and impact of student debt.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

I’m Joseph Lichterman from Baltimore, Maryland.

Educated is as good — if not better — than everyone says. Author Tara Westover writes about her childhood, growing up in a fundamentalist Mormon family in Idaho.

She had no real formal education, but she managed to make it to college, eventually earning a PhD from Cambridge in the UK. 

The book is full of vivid scenes and memorable characters. Westover’s parents believed the End of Days were near and that the government was out to get them. They shunned modern medicine. And Westover suffered terribly at the hands of her abusive older brother. 

It doesn’t get much easier once Westover leaves home and heads to college. She struggles to adjust to the modern world, and the gaps in her education are glaring. Sitting in a European History lecture, she raises her hand to ask what the word Holocaust means. 

“Thanks for that,” the professor says, returning to his lecture. 

Despite everything, Westover perseveres, and the book underscores how her education empowered her to change her circumstances. Westover’s determination, hard work, and sheer brainpower enabled her to succeed, but that was not all she needed to thrive. 

Westover nearly dropped out of college. She was running out of money and was struggling to balance her campus jobs and other responsibilities along with her studies. She was falling behind on everything — her homework, her rent and her bills. 

But then she received a $4,000-dollar federal grant. It saved her. 

“I had a thousand dollars in my bank account,” Westover writes. “It felt strange to think that, let alone say it. A thousand dollars. Extra. That I did not immediately need. IT took weeks for me to come to terms with this fact, but as I did, I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: The ability to think of things besides money. 

My professors came into focus, suddenly and sharply; it was as if before the grant I’d been looking at them through a blurred lens. My textbooks began to make sense, and I found myself doing more than the required reading.” 

Imagine if every student was as fortunate as Westover. Despite everything, she was immensely lucky that she was able to get a modicum of financial stability to focus on her studies. 

I was lucky too. When I was in college, I was able to dedicate myself fully to my classes and my extracurricular activities. Because I graduated without debt, I was able to turn down a job to move halfway across the country for another position that paid less. That decision jump-started my career. “Educated” was a welcome reminder of how I have been so fortunate to benefit from my privilege. 

Not everyone is as lucky. Americans owe more than one-and-a-half trillion dollars in student debt. That’s an average of $34,000 per person. 

Meanwhile, college is becoming more expensive and the financial aid system is confusing. As many as one-in-six college graduates have debt that is more than their annual income, MarketWatch reports. 

The federal government has encouraged colleges to offer financial literacy classes. And the 2020 presidential candidates have also put forward many proposals that will deal with the crisis. 

No matter what the ultimate solution is, something must be done to address the crushing burden of student debt. 

In Educated, Tara Westover realized the power of an education. And she was given the financial freedom to pursue it. 

Every student should have the opportunity to thrive like Westover.