For Alexandria Butler-McDow, 28, going to university didn’t provide the freedom and financial security she'd hoped for. After graduating with an associate’s degree from the California Culinary Academy (CCA) in San Francisco, CA, in 2008, Butler-McDow struggled to find a job that would allow her to support herself and her disabled mother while also paying off her enormous student loan bill.
Hopeful that a more advanced degree would help her make more money and better manage her debt, Butler-McDow went on to pursue a bachelor’s degree in culinary nutrition, concentrating on clinical dietetics at Johnson and Wales University (JWU) in Providence, RI. By the time she had finished her second degree, Butler-McDow was even deeper in debt.
Now, nearly four years after graduating with her second degree, Butler-McDow (better known as Chef Alexandria at Better Taste Productions) is a Los Angeles-based chef and culinary consultant focusing on nutrition and education — and she is still six figures in debt. Though she has defaulted on her loans and deferred some of her payments, the end of this ordeal is still out of her reach. “We are sold the notion that getting an education is what will improve our socioeconomic standing,” Butler-McDow told Refinery29. “My degrees were supposed to bring me out of poverty but they’ve just anchored me.”
Butler-McDow's story is by no means unique. Today, more than 44 million people collectively owe $1.5 trillion in student loan debt with over one million student loan borrowers going into default every single year. What's worse, it is now expected that 40 percent of borrowers will default on their loans by 2023. Research has found that individuals who default on their loans are more likely to live in Latino and Black neighborhoods. More than any other group of students, Black women take on the most debt and, along with Latinas, take the longest to repay their loans and are most likely to default.
The state of this country’s education system is grim, but it's important to look past the numbers at the real, human toll of this crisis. We talked with Butler-McDow about her experiences with student loan debt, life after defaulting, and what she wishes she had done differently.
How much student loan debt did you have when you graduated from CCA? What did your payment plan look like?
Butler-McDow: I honestly did not know the exact amount of debt I had each time I graduated, and I really didn't want to know. Now I know my total debt after CCA was about $20,000, and my mom had also taken out a $40,000 parent plus loan. The total after graduating JWU was about $75,000. It was daunting. There were different loans with different payment amounts due on dates. I tried to stick it out. [After finishing at CCA,] it took me from February to October to secure a real, paying job. But I was working minimum wage and trying to make my payments and get stability but it wasn’t working so I decided to go back for my Bachelor's hoping to be able to become better employed and afford the payments.
How you were feeling about your loans after graduation?
BM: I initially felt optimistic because I thought by pursuing higher education I was setting myself up for financial security and freedom. But after moving back to Los Angeles in 2009 with my associate's degree, I found it extremely difficult to secure employment that would allow me to support myself and help my mom. At that time, I was making a low monthly payment of about $150 for the loan I got when I went to CCA. Not awful, but not exactly doable making $8.25/hour. After graduating for a second time in 2014, I was very stressed about the loans because I didn't have the support at home that would allow me to tackle my debt. No one gave me money for anything. My family believes that you’re supposed to pay rent, so regardless of my student loans and my mom being disabled and us being poor all these years, once I was working the [extended family I was living with] wanted rent.”
What was your job/source of income after graduation? Did you have any support from family?
BM: In 2009, after several months of searching for a job, I started scooping ice cream in the mall. I was working there until I went back to school in 2010. I had a short stint in the kitchen at a club in Studio City, and I've braided hair here and there, but I didn’t have a regular 40-hour work week anywhere. In 2014, once I had my bachelor's degree, I would do small gigs — catering, teaching cooking and nutrition classes, and eventually a job as a chef for a treatment facility. As far as financial support from family, I had none. My mom is disabled, so we would pool our finances for cell phone bills, insurance, food, etc. Other than that, expenses for just living and breathing were on me. I grew up in my grandparents’ house, where my mom still lives. When I came back from school, my room had been turned into a den, and I was sleeping on the couch. But I had to get out of there because there wasn’t a place for me.
How did you end up defaulting on your loans and what happened afterward?
BM: I ended up defaulting on my loans in 2016 during a time I was under-employed, working maybe once a week on-call. I was under a lot of stress and stopped answering the collectors' calls altogether. I didn't have the money to pay them, and I got tired of constantly being reminded that I was broke and poor. They were often rude and condescending and would ask prying questions. That combined with the stress from my family was just too much.
How you were able to get back on track?
BM: Once I started working again and could muster the courage to tackle my overall financial state, I just called the numbers that had been calling me and talked to whoever answered. I was initially just getting the info on how much the loans were and where they were. I eventually consolidated some of them and deferred those in the consolidation. I have two that are outside the consolidation that are still delinquent, and I found out that I can pay towards them online without being on a set plan. I've learned that regardless of where you are with your loans, you can always access your account and make payments toward your debt even if it is defaulted, even if you’ve missed several payments. You can always make a payment, no matter how small, but you may still remain delinquent. I could log on right now and pay $5 and it would go towards my principal or interest. One of my debts just came out of default because they put me on a $5/month auto-payment plan to help me. After ten months of on-time payments, I was brought out of default.
How much do you currently have remaining of your student loan debt?
BM: My loans are far from being paid off. My total debt now is $101,385.98. I'm not sure if this number is correct. Defaulting has made it difficult to get the info on my private loans since they've been bought, sold, and sent to collections a few times.
Do you currently have a job? How much of your paycheck is going to your loans?
BM: I currently have two part-time jobs, as a substitute teacher and as a private chef. None of my income is going towards my student loans yet.
How has your student loan debt affected your mental health?
BM: I had an anxiety attack on May 7th of this year, so it's bad. I'm constantly looking for extra work and jobs that will pay enough to make rent and make loan payments. I'm depressed. I'm angry. I'm disappointed. And on top of that, my family won't help me. I don’t know if they don't want to help or don't think about it.
How do you feel about the fact that African Americans and Latinos are most affected by student loan debt?
BM: It makes sense. We are sold the notion that getting an education will improve our socioeconomic standing, which is not favorable from any angle. My degrees were supposed to bring me out of poverty but they’ve just anchored me.
What are your thoughts on the future of the education system?
BM: The future of education is shifting as we speak. People are learning the difference between getting an education and getting a degree. People are catching on to the fact that vocation and trades are what will enable us to actually earn the income that will sustain and advance us. If I knew then what I know now, I probably would have gotten several certifications and a trade or two, like plumbing and welding.
What do you think needs to be done to better support people with student loan debt?
BM: Honestly, some of us have gotten to the point where any job will do. Just hire us. I've applied to multiple fast food, local bakeries and restaurants, and retailers over the years. I have yet to get a call back or hired. [I need] more opportunities to earn fair wages.
What would you say to others struggling with student loan debt?
BM: You are not the only one. Don't hesitate to call and find out your options. Ask to speak to a supervisor. Be objective and detach your emotions. We have to overhaul our lives and finances and remove every nonessential thing to make room for a chance to tackle this giant.