One senior questions if degree was worth debt

Student faces uncertain future with about $29,000 that must be repaid

Brenna Alexander/Staff

Navid Shaghaghi’s three undergraduate years at UC Berkeley featured a string of unique, successful experiences — he participated in the Occupy Cal and Open University movements, worked with faculty members to set up Earth Day activities, regularly reviewed academic papers with fellow members of the Philosophy Club and took classes under world-renowned professors.

Yet, when asked to sum up his entire campus experience, Shaghaghi chose just one word: “disappointment.”

“In the sense of the education I’ve gotten from my classes … I don’t think financially at all it was worth it,” he said, explaining that his array of extracurricular activities will become lifelong memories but that his academic experiences were far from worth the expense.

Shaghaghi, a fifth-year senior studying in the two departments of philosophy and electrical engineering and computer sciences, is graduating with roughly $29,000 in debt. When he transferred to the campus from a California junior college three years ago, he was “absolutely not aware” that he would have to take out thousands of dollars in student loans just to complete his education.

“The first semester I came here, I just remember that I was so excited to be here,” he said. “I kind of was like, ‘it doesn’t matter, there’s financial aid and it will be taken care of,’ but as the years went on, I was like ‘whoa, I’m paying way too much here.’”
Growing up in Stockton, Calif., Shaghaghi dreamed of attending UC Berkeley but opted to spend time at a local junior college first.

After two years, he arrived on campus eager and enthusiastic, but lingering in the background unknown to him at the time was the growing cost of higher education, even at a public, state-supported school.

Shaghaghi’s family members — who he said are not able to support him financially — were initially pleased for him, he said. His father, remembering California’s decades-old promise of affordable tuition for its students, even praised his son’s choice of a university that he believed would not force his son into debt.

“But I said, ‘no, Dad, (the tuition is) 20 grand a year,’” Shaghaghi recalled. “And he said, ‘what are you talking about?’ He couldn’t believe it.”

The financial aid office provided him with help for most of his expenses, but Berkeley’s cost of living, higher than that of many surrounding areas, forced him to take out student loans.

When asked about whether he thinks he made the right choice in transferring to UC Berkeley, Shaghaghi hesitated. He called it a “two-fold question” and a “bittersweet sort of deal” — he said he could not imagine spending the last three years anywhere else, yet he deeply regrets the financial situation into which the school has pushed him and wishes he had perhaps attended a more affordable California State University campus instead.

“The education we get here is definitely not worth the debt,” he said, emphasizing that he could have “audited the classes, read the same books and been just as successful” had he not enrolled on campus.

And now, with graduation marking a significant transition from the fantasy world of academia to the real world of job security, home mortgages and monthly bank payments, Shaghaghi will soon have to begin paying off the unsubsidized portions of his approximately $29,000 in loans.

“On one side, I don’t want to graduate because I really like the facilities here and my friends and the stuff I do on campus,” he lamented. “But at the same time, I realize that it’s almost great that (graduation) is happening because I would not be able to afford another semester.”

Graduate school appeals to Shaghaghi, whose background in both computer science and philosophy could allow him to explore a combination of embedded systems and artificial intelligence, an expansion of his thesis on robotic and biological systems. Additionally, attending graduate school would allow him to delay his debt payments.

But Shaghaghi stressed that, because of the thousands of dollars of debt he has already accumulated, he will not be able to attend a school that does not completely cover his expenses. The ultimate “deal-breaker” for him to pursue his intellectual passions, he said, will lie in the cost of future years of schooling.

“It doesn’t feel good at all,” he said of his troubled situation. “It’s just very disheartening.”

Another problem he now faces, he said, is that although a technical job from his engineering and computer science background would allow him to conveniently pay off his loans much quicker, UC Berkeley’s focus on theory and academics rather than teaching specific skills that employers seek lowers the of likelihood of immediately finding such a job.

“A degree only pushes you so far,” he said, returning to the seemingly cyclical nature of his dilemma: whether pursuing higher education truly offers more potential benefits than costs. “Yes, the degree is going to help at some point, but when and how and where?”
Shaghaghi is not alone. As tuition nationwide skyrockets, an increasing number of students are graduating with substantial amounts of debt.

UC Berkeley offers a variety of help for students who cannot pay the hefty rate of tuition, including scholarships, work-study and stress counseling for debt-related issues. Additionally, the campus’s implementation of a new aid program for middle-class families aims to relieve some of the financial burden on students’ families.

But it may not be enough. According to Karen Gee, a counselor at the campus health services center, financial problems “almost always come up” in her counseling sessions with students who come in.

“We offer education and support around the stresses related to financial debt,” Gee said. “But if someone were buried in debt, it would be more appropriate for me to send them back to the financial aid office.”

Gee said that “75 to 80 percent of students who come in say finances are an issue for them” and that she has seen extreme cases of students going hungry, unable to even afford food.

As for thousands of other graduating seniors, this week marks the last that Shaghaghi will be officially be on UC Berkeley’s campus as an undergraduate student.

Sitting on the steps of Sproul Hall, he looked out onto the plaza below and called it “sad” to see younger students walking by, oblivious to the fact that many of them could go on to graduate in debt.

“Some of them might not even know it,” he said. “Two years from now, the same person (walking by) will have a sort of bittersweet look on their face, like: ‘I’m happy I’m here, but …’”

Amy Wang is the lead academics and administration reporter.