This post if part of the Financial Information Month 2016: Student Loan Series. During the Month of October, I will be sharing information about Caribbean Studnet Loans, stories from borrowers and highlighting the missed opportunities to address the current issues with Student Loan System in the Eastern Caribbean.
This is my story if how I got into debt with a Caribbean Student Loan in the first place.
In August 2001, a few months after graduating from Basseterre High School in St. Kitts and Nevis, I relocated to live with my aunts in Miami, Florida. It was an exciting yet uncertain time for me, as I was to start high school at North Miami High to finish 12 grade and chart my path to College in America.
High School In the Caribbean
In St. Kitts, high school ends in the 11th year of high school and graduation is marked not by a diploma but by how many subject passes you were able to gain at the Caribbean Examinations Council’s O’Level (high school) competency, a model based on the British General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) high school system. 16 countries in the Caribbean participate in the CXC education qualification & examination system and include: Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Montserrat, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands in addition to St. Kitts and Nevis.
I was able to obtain 9 CXC O’Level subject passes when I completed at the High School level and was eligible to continue to 6th Form (similar to community college in the U.S.) but my parents and I opted form to have me relocate to the U.S. instead.
Coming Back To The United States
I had been a Permanent U.S. Resident or Green Card holder since I was 9 years old and I actually lived on the west coast of the United States for about a year and attended elementary school there. My family then moved back to St. Kitts and Nevis. Having a Green Card enabled us to visit the U.S., without the need of a visitor’s Visa, including closer ports of U.S. entry like St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
Living outside of the U.S. with a Green Card also came with the risk of losing that privilege, as the United States expects immigrants granted the right of Permanent Residency to live, work, pay taxes and contribute to the U.S. economy (more than Caribbean people already do with the amount of good we import to our countries from the U.S.). Growing up I would always hear the term “checking-in” when neighbors or friends would travel to the United States to re-start the clock on the length of time they were out of what was supposed to be their new American homeland.
When I came back to the U.S. after completing high school, however, I was no longer checking-in; I moving to the U.S. to really be a Permanent Resident, this time.
Going To High School Again
The typical path U.S. Permanent Residents like me take when we come to the U.S. after completing up to 5th Form (or 11th Grade) in a Caribbean high school was to enroll in a U.S. high school to complete 12th Grade and then go on to college. That’s exactly what I did in Fall 0f 2001, when I enrolled in North Miami High School.
The transition to U.S. High School involved having my St. Kitts and Nevis transcripts evaluated and get placed in the appropriate classes and grade. I started Grade 12 that August and by October I was informed that I would not be allowed to complete 12th grade since my CXC subject passes were considered equivalent to a high school diploma in the U.S.
Not being able to complete high school in the U.S. would lead me down a road with multiple obstacles when it was time to transition to college, sooner than I had planned.
Preparing for College
Once I was essentially kicked out of North Miami High School, I decided to enroll at Miami Dade Community College (now Miami Dade College) while I prepared to apply to 4-year universities to pursue a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. This is where the real trouble started.
Although the Federal Government granted me Permanent Residency in the United States, that fact had no bearing on my residency in the State of Florida. I was a “new” immigrant; had not lived nor worked in the State of Florida for more than a year; I was minor at 17 years old and I was considered a dependent for the purposes of FAFSA. All of which worked against me when I signed up to attend Miami Dade Community College. That meant, I was ineligible for in-state or in-county tuition, and state grants for Miami Dade College. This was also true for any State College or University in Florida that I would find out later.
Federal Financial Aid is based on your parents’ income and their State residency, if you are classified as a dependent student. My parents were not residents of the State of Florida and the time and were living in the Caribbean. So, in essence, I became a student who did not have residency in the any State of the U.S., including the state I actually lived in. This made me ineligible for in-state or in-county tuition, and many state grants for Miami Dade College. This was also true for any State College in Florida that I would find out later.
I ended up having to pay out-state-tuition and since I had no scholarships, and was not as informed as I was, about student loans, as I am now. To pay this expenses, I initiated a Student Loan from the Development Bank of St. Kitts and Nevis to pay my community college tuition, that was 3-times the price of in-state students.
Financial Aid & Scholarships
While I was attending Miami Dade College, I was also applying to 4-year colleges and searching for as many scholarships as I could. I had already completed the SAT and ACT, so getting my applications, essays, recommendations and transcripts and applying for scholarships were left on my to-do list. I applied to at least three Florida State schools including, the University of Florida, Florida A&M and Florida International University and the University of Miami.
I searched for scholarships too and found out that pretty much every scholarship for college-bound students required that 1) you had graduated from a U.S. high school, 2) be a U.S. Citizen or 3) Both. As a recent graduate from a high school outside the U.S. who was a permanent resident, that made me ineligible for almost every scholarship I came across. Just my luck, here was another obstacle.
In preparation for my acceptance to a 4-year school, I did fill Free Application For Federal Aid and used the tax information from my aunt, who had legal guardianship of me, had claimed me as a dependent the previous year on her tax return. Once the college application process was over, I was accepted to Florida International Univeristy and the University of Miami.
Because, my aunt worked at the University of Miami and I was her dependent, I was awarded special grants for employee’s dependents, a partial academic scholarship, and aid for Florida residents. Once I compared the two schools the costs and financial aid awards, there was not much difference in cost, so I opted to accept the offer to attend the University of Miami and finally start college, which is why I came to the U.S. In the first place.
Rescinded Aid and Student Loan Debt
Once I got to moved on-campus to start my Freshman year at UM, I was alerted by the Financial Aid office that my FASFA information needed additional documentation. After going through the additional step of verification, it was determined that since my Aunt had not claimed me as a dependent on her tax returns for 5 consecutive years prior, I could not be considered her dependent for the purposes of FASFA. That determination meant that I was no longer eligible for the employee dependent tuition benefit, plus, since I had never filed my own tax returns the previous year, then I was not allowed to use my aunt’s Florida State Residency and lost the Florida State aid. My entire financial award offer was then reworked and resulted in a massive shortfall with new costs that needed to be covered.
I remember how the University demanded I come up with the money as soon as possible and threatened to have me locked out of my dorm room, just as I was getting settled in. It was very devastating for me. I ended up being offered a waiver to get an increased amount of Stafford Loans, and used that along with funds from my Caribbean student loans and paying the outstanding balance on a monthly payment plan, to fill the gap. It was a very stressful time for me and I hadn’t even had my first mid-term yet!
I did not think much about how much debt losing all those grants and other tuition breaks would cost me in student loan debt as I was just focused on staying enrolled to try to avoid having to withdraw from school and start the college application process over again. But once I got into my second year at UM, I knew that even with two, part-time jobs, moving off campus to save on housing costs, taking community college classes in the summer to transfer back into UM and a bare bones budget, I would be on track to have $1000,000 in student loans if I stayed at UM, and that scared me. My physical and emotional well-being were also being over-taxed. Overall, it did not seem worth it to stay at a school where I had to travel on unreliable public transportation every day, work myself to death in every spare hour I had between classes; take a full load of engineering and science classes and still end up with an increasing student loan balance at the end of each semester.
My physical and emotional well-being were also being over-taxed. Overall, it did not seem worth it to stay at a school where I had to travel on unreliable public transportation every day, work myself to death in every spare hour I had between classes; take a full load of engineering and science classes and still end up with an increasing student loan balance at the end of each semester.
I made a plan to apply to as many scholarships as I could find that I was eligible for. Although I was running myself ragged, I, somehow, was able to maintain a competitive GPA that made me confident I could at least win something. During that process, I remember doing a scholarship phone interview on one of the Engineering Department’s computer room phone’s because I didn’t have a cell phone and I wouldn’t leave campus until late at night. I really need these scholarships if I was gong to get off the $100,000 student loan debt track.
The second part of my plan involved transferring out of UM altogether. I looked at the best-ranked schools and decided to apply. The schools on my shortlist were:
- Bucknell University
- Georgia Institute of Technology
- Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology
- The University of Texas at Austin
- Texas A & M University
I only applied to schools that would provide me an application fee waiver, because I really had little money, and ended up getting accepted to at least three of the five listed.
Once I received all the decisions on the scholarship programs and transfer schools to which I applied, I decided to leave UM and transfer to Texas A & M University. The scholarships that I won were portable and I was able to enroll at Texas A&M, with an in-state tuition rate offer, and for the first time all I had, to do was go to school, study and not worry about massive outstanding tuition bills.
Student Loan Damage
After completing my bachelor’s degree at Texas A&M, I had a total of about $58, 000 in student loan debt. The debt included:
- Caribbean Student Loan
- Federal Subsidized Student Loans
- Federal Unsubsidized Student Loans
- Private Studnet Loans
Most of the debt was accumulated in my two years of attendance at the University of Miami, and whenever I think about that fact I keep wondering what I could have done differently or what other information I needed to have to navigate the U.S. Higher education system better.
That debt figure jumped to about $68,000 with additional student loans and some credit card debt after I went to graduate school..because I was not done with debt yet. Ha!
There’s no way to undo the debt but to pay it off and that’s what I can focus on now.
What’s your experience transitioning to college and financing your studies?
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