Why I Didn’t Default on My Student Loans: A Response to Lee Siegel

June  11,  2015 / By Tony Signore

Last week, Lee Siegel took to the New York Times Opinion pages to write a piece entitled Why I Defaulted on My Student Loans. I believe the key point Siegel was trying to make here was that college tuition has spiraled out of control and, unfortunately, the extremely high cost prohibits far too many students from pursuing their academic goals.

I side with Siegel on that specific point, but absolutely nothing else. In fact, I could not disagree more with that decision he made as a young man, which he stands by to this day. According to Siegel, he signed up for his first student loan in 1975. I secured mine through Chemical Bank in 1981, fully aware of my obligation. When Siegel, a Bronx resident, started at Columbia University, annual tuition was approximately $3,850 without room and board. I selected Fordham, and the cost of a great education with a Jesuit influence was only $4,000 in ’81. It’s important to note that from 1977 to 1986, most undergraduate student loans maxed out at $2,500 per year; $5,000 annually for graduate students.

My mother and father, who emigrated from Italy in the late 40s, worked very hard to provide for their four children. I was the youngest and the only to attend college, so I didn’t think there was a need for a loan. In reality, my parents were in a position to pay up to $2,000 per year towards my tuition. I secured a loan (at approximately 10% interest in 1981) to cover the balance each school year.

It was a great investment. Fordham helped me secure two separate internships in my field of study, experiences that paved the way for my first full-time position in public relations. My annual salary was $12,500 in 1987 and I had bills piling up just like everybody else. Of course, the student loan re-payment plan was kicking in as well. Fortunately, that wasn’t a problem. In addition to my full-time PR position, I produced and announced the traffic report nearly every evening for a local radio station and worked at a shoe store on weekends to stay ahead of the game.

Tony's First Day
Tony Signore’s first day at Taylor: 1/3/89, Base Salary of $14,000

Fast forward to 1997 – I vividly recall pulling out my very last student loan payment stub (#120 following 10 years of monthly payments). I was with my wife, Elizabeth, when I wrote that final check and she still remembers the proud look on my face. There was a great deal of sacrifice along the way, but to me, that’s simply the price of entry. There was always a burning desire to deal with each and every responsibility that came my way, from challenging assignments in the Middle East and Africa to meeting financial obligations when the chips are down. This is what a person of substance does – nothing more, nothing less.

Finally, let’s consider the cost of tuition when Siegel and I attended college, the loan amount we secured and the subsequent 10-year, re-payment period. It was much more manageable than the dire situation students have been faced with the past 15 years. In other words, Siegel may have walked away from his financial obligation not because he was overwhelmed with debt, but maybe because he lacked the intestinal fortitude expected of great women and men.

Let’s close on a broader, more important point related to rising tuition costs. My colleague, April Stoltz (MFA, Writing, Columbia University), added a few personal thoughts:

“Current tuition rates go beyond prohibitive. Financial aid counseling is lacking at best and intentionally misleading at its worst. What may seem like a good investment, in this day and age, rarely is. This is a painful conclusion, as I’m a passionate advocate of education. Young people, however, are entering the job market with a burden so large they can expect to tread water not for 10 years, but for 30 to 50 years. Additionally, there are certain necessary vocations that require a good education, but lack in salary – teaching and journalism come to mind, and those professionals bear a particularly unfair burden.

Tony’s point about Siegel is merited, but the larger picture is bleak for the graduates of 2000 and beyond. No, we should not default on our student loans, but there are millions of responsible current and former students holding billions in debt. They’re all waiting for a drastic action with promise and the horizon is empty. I hope we find a hero to lead the charge for my son’s generation, because our bootstraps are no longer cutting it.”

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