It's a not-so-funny paradox: sacrificing your future to attend college.
That's kind of how it feels, however, for countless students who graduate college every year with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and few job prospects.
"There's really no way around it, no other choice. I'll probably be paying the minimum for the rest of my life," said Beth Crowley, who decided in her 30s to go back to school to become a teacher. Between Northeastern University, where she started, and Salem State, where she is now a senior, she will have $60,000 in debt by the time she graduates.
"What I'm kind of hoping for when I graduate is to work in the public sector and participate in some loan forgiveness program," she said. "The problem is, you have to go to school to become a teacher and you have all these loans, but teachers don't make a lot of money. ... But what are you supposed to do? There's no way around it."
Student loans have been a hot topic on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail for President Barack Obama. With subsidized federal Stafford loan rates set to double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1, both parties drafted bills to prevent the hike. But the debate quickly turned into a political boxing match.
To pay for the $5.9 billion bill, Republicans proposed taking money from a pool set aside for preventive care in the Obama health care law, while a bill sponsored by Salem Democrat John Tierney would pay for the bill by ending certain tax subsidies for oil companies.
Yesterday, the Republican-controlled House did not vote on Tierney's bill. Instead, they passed their version 215-195, despite a lack of support from some conservatives and most Democrats. The Senate has indicated it won't vote on the bill, and President Obama has said that if it gets to his desk he will veto it.
Democrats say Republicans are tapping money in the health bill that is supposed to provide preventive care for women and children, while Republicans contend the money is a slush fund with no real oversight or purpose.
"The Republican bill to prevent student loan interest rates from doubling is not a serious attempt to fix this situation," Tierney said yesterday in a statement. "This bill pits American students against middle-class women and children. There is no way this is a viable option for our families."
Republicans, on the other hand, eagerly painted Democrats as the bad guys, choosing to stand up for another big-spending program rather than help students.
"When forced to choose today, John Tierney determined that protecting the Democrats' government takeover of health care was more important than helping future college graduates," said a press release sent out by the National Republican Congressional Committee.
If Congress takes no action, rates would double for the 7.4 million undergraduates expected to borrow new Stafford loans beginning July 1. This year, 8 million students took out such loans, averaging $3,568, according to the Education Department. It is expected to impact about 177,000 students in Massachusetts.
Richard Tisei, a Republican from Wakefield who is running against Tierney for the 6th District congressional seat, had a harsh assessment of both sides.
With Tierney going after big oil and Republicans again attacking "Obama Care," Tisei said both sides were seeking out their "boogie man."
"I look at the whole hustle back and forth, and I just see another manufactured political crisis in Washington," he said.
Tisei said he would have voted to preserve loan rates at 3.4 percent — and since the only vote came on the Republican plan, he would have voted for it.
"Politics is being played by both sides in terms of coming up with a funding source. ... A group of rational people at the table could have solved this in 10 minutes, but it's typical Washington, unable to get anything done."
The debate on Stafford interest rates, though important to families and highly politicized, in reality won't do much to shore up the long-term fiscal stability of America's higher education system. As with the country's health care system, the big issue is skyrocketing costs.
Recent Gordon grad Ruth Clarkin is one of the few students who was able to get through college debt-free thanks to her parents and a series of scholarships and grants. She now works at Gordon and said she has a newfound understanding of just what goes into providing a top-notch education.
"Having been a student and then coming to work here, I've seen what goes into educating just one student," she said. "There are hundreds of staff members that students don't even know exist: the people who come clean while you're gone in class, the landscapers, the people supplying books, all the offices that I never knew existed while I was a student, but that the school could not function without."
College tuition rates have tripled since the 1990s, from an average of $4,757 per year in 1990 to $12,804 in 2010 at public institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Private college tuition has risen from $12,910 to $32,184 over that time.
U.S. student debt now exceeds $1 trillion, more than the national credit card debt. The average loan bill is close to $25,000.
Tierney, who is a member of the House Education Committee, said Congress took steps to address the problem by adopting a myriad of measures, including capping how much a person has to pay each month based on their income, and ending reliance on private lenders and using the savings to increase Pell Grants for students. It was a good start, he said, but more needs to be done.
"We need to get more well-endowed schools to put some of that toward tuition assistance, and we have to do more to encourage states to return to the level they used to spend on higher education," he said in an interview.
"We also need to keep working with schools to keep costs down as much as we can. ... I never would have had the chance to go anywhere without public education, so I am totally alert to what it means for families and what a burden it is to walk around in debt for 10 to 15 years, because I've done it."
Tisei, who said he finished college in three years "because my family couldn't really afford college," said there needs to be more accountability for universities.
"The reason health care and higher education have the highest inflation rates is that they are the most subsidized by the federal government. What incentive do they have to contain costs?" Tisei said.
"Maybe we should make sure loans are going out to more to kids who go to colleges and universities where tuition is being held down."
Jesse Roman may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org