RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Paying for college gets more expensive every year. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Americans owe more than a trillion dollars in outstanding student loan payments. We're talking about college costs this week for The Howard Project, our ongoing conversation with four students at Howard University here in Washington, D.C., as they anticipate graduation. Ariel Alford, Taylor Davis, Leighton Watson and Kevin Peterman - they each got to school their own way. Leighton is on a full-ride scholarship that pays for everything from tuition and books to room and board. Taylor also had a full scholarship.
TAYLOR DAVIS: It's really amazing because I didn't think I would be able to come to Howard just because of the cost. And so what my mom did - because I told her I wanted to go to Howard when I was a freshman in high school. And she looked at - as a woman who always looks toward the future - she looked up tuitions then. And she was, like, all right, Taylor, this is how much it costs. These are their scholarships. You need to obtain this ACT score to attend.
ARIEL ALFORD: How am I paying for college?
MARTIN: This is Ariel.
ALFORD: I don't know, by the grace of God and, like, pixie dust or whatever. So I do have loans. It's actually all exclusively loans which is very hard and very disheartening to watch, like, the debt just accumulate. And it's like you're slowly, like, walking yourself into, like, prison or slavery. So yeah, the debt is just climbing.
KEVIN PETERMAN: Hey, this is Kevin. I'm paying college through scholarships, grants and loans. When it became time to go to college, my mother told me first to dream and not to allow any type of financial struggles keep me from dreaming.
MARTIN: But living the dream means burning the candle at both ends. Three of the four students have part-time jobs in addition to their studies. Taylor works for alumni relations, calling former grads to keep them connected to the school.
DAVIS: It's really rewarding because it's not just them - yeah, of course, they give back to the institution, but they also ask me about my Howard journey. And they offer bits of wisdom. And its honestly encouraging to know that they care about, you know, how I'm doing and what my future plans are. And they're telling me, you know, keep up the good work, and I believe in you and go out and be great.
MARTIN: Ariel works as a campus organizer for an education nonprofit. Leighton doesn't have a job, but he's the student body president which he says can feel like full-time work.
LEIGHTON WATSON: For example, there was a fire that happened in one of the dorms. Eight hundred and fifty students had to be moved to another dorm. So I'm meeting with Residence Life. I'm meeting with Student Activities. We're trying to figure out what to do. We're getting buses lined up to get those students out. We're thinking about getting hotel rooms. We're checking those.
MARTIN: And Kevin works as an RA in one of the dorms.
PETERMAN: You're on the clock 24 hours a day. You become their big brother. You become their father. You become their uncle. You become their financial aid resource officer. You become everything that they might need you to be in their moment of need.
MARTIN: They all watch their money pretty carefully, but when they feel like splurging, they each have their own way to indulge - going to a movie, maybe taking an Uber. Kevin - he allows himself a good haircut.
PETERMAN: It's not just about having a clean cut, but it is really an experience. Being on a college campus, you can sometimes be surrounded with affluence and intellectuals. And then you go into the barber shop, especially African-American barbershops, and you can find the same conversations that you were having in your classroom but just on a regular scale.
MARTIN: We asked each of our students whether money figures into their career plans. Ariel wants to be a teacher, Leighton, a lawyer, Kevin, a minister. Taylor wants to be a nurse. None of them said money was a driving factor, but they had different answers when we asked them what it would mean to feel financially comfortable.
WATSON: Hey, this is Leighton. We all talk about wanting to make six figures. That's just the thing now for college graduates. I think somewhere, you know, well into the six figures would be comfortable for me to do what I need to do. Now it wouldn't be comfortable as far as taxes are concerned. But that's something else to worry about. And it's enough, I think, to pass down to the next generation, so that they can have something to start off with too. And you don't have to worry about things like paying for college and debt and all that sort of stuff.
MARTIN: Ariel says she wants the fundamentals.
ALFORD: I would like to be a homeowner because I think it's important for black people to become homeowners, like, in our communities. So I would like to own a home. I would definitely like to not have to live paycheck to paycheck. And I would like to own my car, you know, or be able to pay my car note. And I would like to have health insurance and all these things. So I think that the things that we would say in this country are, like, necessities or go along with our standard of living, those are the things that I would like to have. And I would also like to live comfortably enough so that I can give back to my community. So I can give back to my people. So I can have something to contribute.
MARTIN: Kevin wants enough money to raise a family, eventually and to help pay for his younger brother's education when it's time. And even though he took on loans to pay for his own college education, he doesn't want debt to stand in the way of his goals.
PETERMAN: I don't want to allow it to keep me from doing what it is that I want to do. Many of my friends have decided not to go to graduate school because they already owe a large amount of money in loans. But that was something that I continued to say that, you know what, this is a dream of mine. This is something that I think will progress me and move me forward. And I wasn't going to let the cost of college stop me from pursuing what it is that I wanted to pursue.
DAVIS: Hi, this is Taylor. So initially how much money I would make, that is what drove me initially when I was in high school. So I thought I wanted to be an engineer. I thought I wanted to be a doctor. I thought I wanted to do things that would result in me having, like, a really fat paycheck, right? But when I came to Howard and I began to learn more about myself and more about the world and as I began to understand my purpose, I realized that I'm not put on this earth just to make money. And that's not to say that money isn't important, but it is not my driving factor. My driving force is to serve my people. And if God leads me to make a million dollars a year, then all glory to God, and I will continue to serve my people. If I am lead and I make $30,000 a year, all glory to God. I will continue to serve my people.
MARTIN: That's Taylor Davis, Kevin Peterman, Ariel Alford and Leighton Watson - Howard University students thinking about what it will cost to live the life they want to lead.
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