$200K in debt for a BA

With $200,000 in student loans and a job as an office manager, Kelli Space, 23, has put up a web site asking strangers to help pay off her debts.  A 2009 graduate of Northeastern University, Space pays $891 per month on her loans and is supposed to start paying $1,600 a month in November. She lives with her parents, who aren’t able to help her financially.  So far, she’s received more than $6,000 in donations — and a lot of criticism for asking others to pay for her mistakes.

Space, who doesn’t reveal her major, says she didn’t know how much she’d earn with a bachelor’s degree. (Update: Apparently, she majored in sociology, not typically the path to riches.) Her parents, who don’t have a college education, couldn’t advise her.

We applied for scholarships during the summer but they heard — as much as I did — that cost of tuition should never keep you from attending a great school. So… we made the mistake of following such romantic advice. Cue regret.

In an interview, Space blames herself for a series of poor decisions.

The first mistake was not exploring all possible options. The second mistake was not understanding finance (best practices anyway). The third was signing on the dotted line! The next was staying at Northeastern even after I realized the gravity of the situation. Do I regret my education? Absolutely not. Do I think it was worth it? No – not because it was a poor education, but because no education is worth borrowing that amount of money without guaranteeing the salary to pay the loans back afterward.

OOTS News: To do things over again, what would you do differently?

twohundredthou: I would have gone to a community college and then applied to larger universities a year or two later. I would have been secure on a major before I chose to borrow such an exorbitant amount of money. The regrets are plenty, and I’m still working on that time machine.

Space says she’s not a deadbeat: She plans to pay off her loans over the next 20 years. At least she can serve as a warning for other naive students that a bachelor’s degree in a field without engineering in the title doesn’t guarantee a ride on the gravy train.

Currently, Northeastern, a private university, charges $49,452 a year for tuition, fees, room and board. Borrowers, beware!

About Joanne


  1. Do those who regularly claim here that ordinary people don’t need to understand math have anything to say about understanding compound interest?

  2. She got a degree in Sociology, which makes things worse. Who pays $200K for a degree in the guttiest of gut majors? At least the NYT’s poster girl is going for a nursing degree (she had an NYU degree in Religion/Women’s Studies)

  3. If she is having trouble making these payments, she needs to contact her lenders and negotiate with them. I assume that the bulk of this debt is through private lenders, so those handle repayment in different ways, but the federal loans have flexible repayment options. I hope that she is looking into those options.

    This post definitely makes me feel a little bit better about the measly amount of debt I have taken out to go to school in comparison. In community college, I got paid to go to school.

  4. I have a friend who majored in Sociology & is making good money now. She went into HR after graduation and worked her way up to the head of her department. The difference is that her degree is from a top 5 school rather than a 3rd tier one like Northeastern. She also used advanced placement credits to complete her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 4 years.

    Rutgers is a decent school, at least as good as Northeastern if not better, and its tuition for NJ residents is a fraction of what Northeastern charges.

  5. Michael E. Lopez says:

    It’s mean to laugh, isn’t it?

  6. Soapbox0916 says:

    What makes you think that engineering degrees are a ride on the gravy train? I know several recent engineer grads with high grades and internships that can’t find squat right now and they all live with family for the time being. I am talking about electrical and chemical engineering grads specifically. Granted eventually I think they will be better off than most majors, but the recent engineer grads I personally know recently worked for the census, retail, and odds and ends type work. Generally they are finding something because people realize that they are smart, but it is not in engineering so far.

    The problem may be one of geographic distribution, for instance my area just doesn’t have that many science jobs. I am not an engineer, but a former scientist, working with the homeless currently because I chose to move back to my hometown and live near family. I do believe that I could get a science job again if I moved somewhere that had plenty of science jobs.

    However, the recent engineer grads that I happen to know about represent several different cities across the nation, but seem to live where engineers are being downsized, and recent grads can’t compete with experienced engineers. They are all willing to move, but that has not worked out either for them. Not sure what is going on.

  7. Rob,
    Ignorance of any subject can create an opportunity for fraud, and no one can know everything. The best defense against fraud is to keep in mind the adage “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”. This applies to exalted claims for the value of academic credentials.

    If it is fraud for a mechanic to charge for the repair of a functional motor and if it is fraud for a physician to charge for the treatment of a healthy patient, then it is fraud for a teacher, school, school district, or State to charge students or taxpayers for the instruction of a student who does not need our help.

    In my favorite scene from the movie __Good Will Hunting__ the Matt Damon character tells some arrogant preppie: “You paid $150,000 for an education you could have had for $1.50 in late fees at the public library.”

    It is just as much fraud for government schools to bill taxpayers for the instruction of students in subjects which students could pursue independently as it is for private universities to do so. University faculty also defraud taxpayers when they bill for the generation of researrch such as “The Myth of the Individual in the Films of Clint Eastwood” (really), by Dr. Noel Kent, or “Mumford, Mailer, and the Machine”, Governor-elect Dr. Neil Abercrombie’s PhD thesis (a 50-page book report).

    Credit-by-exam would bust the college racket.

  8. >Ignorance of any subject can create an opportunity for fraud, and no one can know everything.

    I agree, but everyone can learn enough math to figure out that payments on $200,000 of debt (more than I paid for my house back in the day) are going to run to a lot of money per month for a damned long time.

    But you’re right, this isn’t just innumeracy, this is lunacy. You can easily go to a financial aid repayment calculator, like this one:


    and see that her payments would be nearly $1,200 per month for 25 years on such a loan (at 5% – around $150,000 in intrest!). If she works a normal 40-hour a week job, that’s nearly $7/hr going to school loans. Even if she had landed a $75,000 dollar a year job with her degree, the loan would still represent almost 20% of her pre-tax income. Any way you look at it, that was an unthinkable debt.

    I’m surprised she was smart enough to get a degree from a respected college and stupid enough to take on those loans. Makes me wonder about the Sociology program at Northeastern. She’s certainly no advertisement for the school…

  9. CarolineSF says:

    One related point to this is really, really important, so please pay attention.

    In other developed nations, college students pay no college tuition, and their living expenses are covered. I do not know of an information source comparing every individual nation in this regard, but this is true in a number of developed nations, such as Denmark and the Netherlands.

    By comparison: In the U.S., college tuition is a major financial burden. It’s the expense of a lifetime to many families, and many students like this one graduate in crushing debt.

    What this non-parallel situation means is that it’s not valid, sound or methodologically acceptable to compare college-going rates or college graduation rates in the U.S. against those other nations. Not ever, not at all, period, paragraph. It’s either ignorant, if done unknowingly, or dishonest if not.

    Since unsound, invalid, non-methodologically acceptable comparisons like that are hurled about all the time to “prove” that the U.S. is being destroyed by “failing schools” and “bad teachers,” it’s essential to understand that those supposed comparisons are 100% bogus. (There’s one in Jonathan Alter’s current Newsweek column on Bill Gates, just to call out an example.)

  10. What a colossal waste of time and money. I lay this at the feet of high school counselors and administrators and reformers like the Gates Foundation who preach bachelor degrees for all, ignoring need and practicality. A bachelor’s in sociology? This poor girl was ill-advised.

  11. Belinda Gomez says:

    In plenty of other developed nations, most of the populace doesn’t go to college. Also, in other developed nations, graduates aspire to work for the national government. Not exactly a big plus.

  12. And she’s probably off the marriage market, as well. She’s not likely to own a new car, or a house either. It’s a travesty. When our 3 kids went to college, we warned them about this trap. They successfully negotiated around it, with academic scholarships and work study.

    And yes, we’re college grads. So that did help, immeasurably.

  13. (A) Not all students should go to college; there are already far too many unprepared/underprepared and/or unmotivated kids there – wasting their time because they are acquiring neither knowledge nor skills, while accumulating debt. Some are wasting their parents’ money, which at least gets the taxpayers off the hook.
    (B) Government intervention, in the form of student loans/grants etc. has greatly distorted the higher-ed market, for the worse (cue this students and those like her). Private insurers would be less forgiving, so that financial aid would go primarily to those who have demonstrated both ability to do college-level work and motivation. It is also likely that ability to pay back – choice of major – would be a factor. Political correctness be da**#d.
    (C) Colleges must share responsibility for admitting kids who are unprepared for college work and/or lack motivation and for admitting kids into/offering majors in fields unlikely to lead to college-grad level jobs.
    (D) The k-12 system has been failing far too many kids, by weak curriculum and instruction choices, by inadequate/unsafe conduct policies, by demanding far too little effort from kids, by the pretense that all kids are equally academically talented and interested (and all should go to college!) and by failing to offer/recommend non-college options. It also has inadequate counseling as to real achievement levels, what students must do to improve and appropriate educational/career choices. Non-tenured teachers in affluent areas have told me that it would be worth their jobs to suggest non-college options for even the least academically able and/or interested students.
    (E) Both HS and college counselors should specifically advise against this kind of situation. I’ll have to say that none of my four kids, who attended four high schools in three states and four counties EVER had a guidance counselor who had any apparent interest in academic matters (same for their friends); the guidance types were all in the job for the touchy-feely stuff. I remember observing their eager anticipation as they stocked up on kleenex for the rejection-lettter visits; they had displayed no such enthusiasm for academic advisement or for college applications.

  14. It sounded from the story like only $12k of her debt is from Federal loans. The bulk of it *WAS* from one or more private lenders. So I’m not seeing where it’s the government’s fault that she has so much debt. If anyone shares the blame with Ms. Space, IMHO it is her high school guidance counselor.

    It’s one thing to advise a student to choose an Ivy caliber private school over a cheaper but less prestigious state school. That very well might pay off in the long run. But a 3rd tier school like Northeastern? No way.

  15. CarolineSF says:

    Momof4, I agree with some of your points. However, I defend K-12 educators against your blame of them for “the pretense that all kids are equally academically talented and interested (and all should go to college!)” and the failure “to offer/recommend non-college options.”

    Here’s the reality, in my opinion: The idiotic notion that all students are college material is promoted with starry-eyed sincerity by some well-meaning but clueless people across the political spectrum; and also with cynical dishonesty by malevolent forces on the free-market right who are well aware that it’s hooey but who fully intend to set the entire public school system up for failure. Nobody with actual contact with real live kids could truly believe this, needless to say. I do not believe that actual educators would EVER take this attitude if it weren’t imposed upon them by force.

    I’m not quite clear what you’re portraying in regards to your kids’ college advising. At my kids’ San Francisco Unified School District high school, the college search/admissions counseling is minimalist, with one part-time veteran counselor specializing in college and the overworked school counselors providing what support they can. The PTSA parent volunteers work hard arranging additional information sessions for families, including on college financing. Some families don’t take advantage of that and do fall into the loan trap — unfortunately it may be those who need the advising the most who understand that need the least.

    My college-student son was fully aware throughout the college search process that finances would play a major role in his college choice. When he was accepted to the highest-demand college on his list, Oberlin Conservatory, the family attitude was “mazel tov, but assume that it’s not going to happen unless the financial aid offer is an amazing surprise” (and we meant ZERO loans) — and he accepted that attitude with uncharacteristic cooperativeness. In fact, Oberlin did provide enough aid, and thank you Oberlin donors! In any case, I really think that colleges need to convey very clearly to applicants and their families that they should accept ONLY if they can afford it without crushing loans. It’s cruel and unethical of them — and counterproductive — to play “gotcha!” with the unsophisticated.

  16. Crimson Wife –
    The federal government does play a large role in Miss Space’s dilemma even though she only has a limited amount of federal-loaned debt.
    The skyrocketing college costs that have occurred over the past 20 years are largely (but not solely) due to two factors – federal tinkering with the student loans system and promoting a college-for-all stance. Both have significantly increased the demand for college degrees, resulting in astounding price increases.
    I am the fourth of six children, and the youngest has just started college while the fifth is in her last year at a state university. The tuition that she (the fifth) is paying is greater than the total of the tuition that the first three paid. The tuition that the youngest is paying at a high-demand engineering university is greater than the tuitions of all the other five of us. Luckily, we were raised by practical parents and all wisely managed our tuitions and debt so that we are not caught in the same situation as Miss Space.

  17. A solution?

    Require schools accepting federal aid to publish graduation and loan default rates, then tie the ability to accept federal aid to those numbers. After 5-10 years only schools that are selective in admissions and provide real educations would be able to accept students with federal loans.
    This would put a big squeeze on the second and third tier universities that have become nothing more than party schools and diploma mills.

  18. Not sure how this got to be a discussion about the “college for all” debate. There is nothing in this article to suggest that she wasn’t ready for the rigors of college, just naive and uninformed. It is a travesty that there wasn’t anyone available (either at her high school or college) who would honestly guide her through this situation. It really is a crime that a bank would give out that large of a loan to someone who isn’t going into a career that will support those payments.

  19. Banks can do that because ed loan debt cannot be discharged in bankruptcy; once incurred, students either pay it off or spend the rest of their lives in peonage.