I will never forget the day I went over to the loan office that used to be at Harvard's Holyoke Center and gave them my last student loan repayment check. I walked out actually feeling lighter. I was a tenured professor at Harvard at the time, but I remembered — and still do — the years when the only way I could afford to eat was to put the meal on my "bursar's card" and just pile more onto that loan.
Of course, I was so much luckier than most students today. My undergraduate school, Wellesley, weighted my award in favor of grants, not loans, which most schools didn't do then and even fewer do now. For law school, I was mostly in the debt column, but it cost so much less than it does now (even adjusting for inflation) that it was a factor in my life, not the driving force.
Today, my students come see me to talk about their futures, and the very first thing we discuss — before their hopes and dreams, before what matters and what doesn't — is what their monthly payments will be. Even years later, when they are ready to move beyond that first job that they took in the hopes of paying "it" off, most of them are still crushed by the weight on their shoulders. Don't think for a moment that you can live any better when you get out, I always warn them, because the minute you do, you'll never pay "it" off.
Yes, there are exceptions: schools with loan forgiveness programs for students who pursue public service. But most students are saddled with loans with no such provisions, and for all the talk about default rates, the students I know make huge sacrifices to pay their debts.
That is why David Geffen's unprecedented generosity to the UCLA Geffen School of Medicine is so deserving of praise.
Mind you, I teach at USC. Praising things associated with UCLA is not part of my usual repertoire. But giving $100 million so that 33 students in next year's class can graduate with no debt at all is a gift worth notice even by a loyal Trojan.
It costs about $300,000 to get a medical degree from UCLA. Nationally, the average debt for medical students who take out loans (and more than 85 percent do) is about $170,000. That doesn't count the college loans that often accrue interest in the meantime.
As with lawyers, these huge debts can't help but influence the choices made by graduates: choices about whether to practice family medicine or pursue a specialty with higher compensation; choices about whether to enter "Big Law" (nothing wrong with big firm practice, but it is not for everyone, and there is no shortage of lawyers willing to represent well-heeled clients) or fill the enormous need for those willing to represent people who can't pay top dollar but need top help.
And lawyers and doctors are at least positioned to make money — someday. Social workers? Educators with advanced degrees? The best trained teachers?
I've been raising money for educational institutions for decades. Relatively speaking, it's "easy" to raise bricks-and-mortar money. Most very, very rich people who are willing to make gifts want to see their names engraved for posterity on large and impressive buildings, or at least on the classrooms and institutes inside those buildings, whether or not that's what the school really needs.
With his gift, Mr. Geffen chose to associate his name not with a new building or a new institute, but with the lives of 33 young men and women who will be free to follow their dreams and change people's lives — thanks to him. In my book, that is a gift that will keep on giving. Merry Christmas.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.