Are these new college grads ready for life in overpriced San Diego?

"Girl, you have no income, why would I rent to you?"

Skyler Henry is paying about $1000 per month in student loan repayment. “It’s more than my rent. I’ll be done paying it off when I’m like 45.”
  • Skyler Henry is paying about $1000 per month in student loan repayment. “It’s more than my rent. I’ll be done paying it off when I’m like 45.”
  • Image by Matthew Suárez

When my husband and I moved to San Diego from Lawrence, Kansas, upon him receiving his first “real job” out of college, we assumed what normal Midwesterners would — that we would live in an apartment facing the ocean with wall to wall windows. He had a good job. We genuinely believed that we would have it easy. To our dismay the only apartment we could afford was in Spring Valley off of Campo Road across the street from the Deering Banjo Factory. Even all the way out there, we could not believe how much our rent was. We could not believe how much our grocery bills were, and our gas.

Beck Seashols, beckadoodles.com

I often wonder what it’s like for college graduates who were born and raised here in San Diego. Are they prepared for the disappointment of life after college in our overpriced city?

The average price of an apartment in downtown San Diego is $2149 a month, followed by North County coastal whose average is $2126 a month. The most affordable prices in San Diego are found in in East County where average rentals run $1418 a month. But even that is out of reach for many young 20-somethings. Our city is the ninth most expensive metropolitan rental market in the United States. But we are ranked 27th in the nation when it comes to income. A recent Realtor.com study, found San Diego to be the nation’s least affordable city in terms of real estate in relation to income in the nation.

The question is, how are recent college grads managing to survive in this city? Is the sunshine really worth the stress?

The out-of-state liberal arts graduate

Skyler Henry is an East County San Diego kid, born and raised. Before going away to New York for college, the furthest she ventured from home was Northern California. Henry is tall, 5’11”. She wears her long wavy brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. She is 24 but could pass for 30, not because she looks older, but because of her no-frills, no-bullshit demeanor.

Henry attended La Mesa Middle School as a kid. Her parents worried she had fallen into an unsavory crowd. Instead of sending her on to Helix High School, they opted to send her to Grossmont High School in El Cajon to get a fresh start and make some new friends.

“They told me I had to play sports,” Henry says with a nostalgic smile, “They wanted me to play a fall, winter, and spring sport so that there would be no time during the year for me to just come home after school. They wanted to keep me busy.”

Her freshmen year, Henry began playing water polo. She could barely swim, so the coaches placed her in the goalie box. To everyone’s surprise, she took it to it immediately. During her high school career, Henry exceled in the sport.

She went on to attend the Junior Olympics and was sought after by college recruiters. By her senior year coaches from Division 1 water polo programs where courting her. A handful of schools offered to pay Henry’s way to visit their universities.

“I went on a recruiting trip to Marist College. The campus was one of the prettiest places I have ever been. It’s right on the Hudson river. They paid for everything! They handed the girl who was hosting me an envelope of cash for whatever I wanted for the weekend. I worked out all my paper work and my scholarship with them and I signed [that weekend]. I thought they would give me more money than anyone else would, so I signed. They told me ‘That money is yours as soon as you sign,’ and as long as I kept my grades up. If I had waited to sign and they got a couple of more [athletes] out there, they may not have had the same budget for me,” Henry explains.

Henry says this decision was based largely on wanting to get out of San Diego and to escape her parents.

“I wanted different experiences. I wanted to travel. I hadn’t been anywhere except for Baja or Nor Cal for water polo. I wanted to go somewhere new. I was in high school, so at that time everything my parents did was so annoying and horrible. I was so tired of living with them. Of course, now looking back, they weren’t doing anything unreasonable,” Henry recalls with a laugh.

Tuition, room, and board at Marist College is $55,150.00 per year.

“They gave me a $15,000 a year athletic scholarship. I also got an academic scholarship that varied year to year depending on my GPA. That was around $5-6000 a semester. Because I was out-of-state, I got like an out-of-state bonus, it’s like getting a Cal Grant but for being out of state. That was a little less than $10,000. So, really, I was paying for my housing only.”

Upon graduation, Henry left Marist with a 3.4 grade point average, a degree in international political science and environmental science with a minor in studio art, and $60,000 in student debt.

“Housing was expensive. When I was applying for student loans, they don’t ask about any scholarships. So, I just took out whatever I would need for housing. I took out $15,000 for four years in a row. Unfortunately, they are all individual loans. No one co-signed with me so I had to go privately. I am just now figuring out what I got myself into. If you get government loans [co-signed] with your parents, they will consolidate it when you graduate. If you go through Sallie Mae, which is who I went through for my student loans, each time you take out a loan, they do not consolidate unless you find an independent loan consolidator. I took out three loans. I am making three payments a month on that, and a fourth payment on a government loan. I am spending about a $1000 a month on them.”

Henry sighs deeply and shrugs it off, before adding, “It’s more than my rent. It is what it is. I’ll be done paying it off when I am like 45. I will consolidate eventually and then, maybe, I will pay them until I am like 60. If it’s like a $100 a month, then cool.” She says matter-of-factly before adding, “Student debt is just something that everyone does. All of my friends deal with it. Mine is less than the average. I mean, I have a lot. I went to a private liberal arts college that cost $50-60,000 a year. If I went to San Diego State, like [my boyfriend] Ryan, and they covered the same amount, I would be debt-free for sure.”

San Diego State grad

I meet Ryan Mussey, Henry’s boyfriend, at Lestat’s Coffee House near their Normal Heights apartment the following week. He is wearing a striped hoodie and a hat bearing his high school’s name.

Ryan Mussey: "At 24 years old I feel like I have the body of a 50-year-old. I never really understood the term rat race, until I got in it."

Ryan Mussey: "At 24 years old I feel like I have the body of a 50-year-old. I never really understood the term rat race, until I got in it."

Like Henry, Ryan also grew up in East County San Diego. He attended Grossmont High School and grew up in a house on Mount Helix.

Unlike Henry, Mussey was in no rush to leave Southern California. “My senior year of high school, I applied to a handful of UC schools, mostly the coastal ones. I am pretty loyal to the coast. I applied to UCLA, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Cal State Long Beach, Cal State Monterey Bay, and UC Irvine. I ended up deciding to stay home and go to SDSU. My overall thought process was that it would just be cheaper and easier in the long run. I was young. I was only 17 when I started college.”

Mussey didn’t receive any scholarships to cover the cost of tuition at SDSU. He received financial aid and took out student loans to cover his tuition. SDSU’S in-state tuition costs $7460. Room and board, which Mussey did his freshmen year, is $15,966 annually.

“Between all the loans, I think my balance was around about $30,000. My grandma helped finance my first year. She created a 457-college savings account that had about $8000 in it. I was able to cancel out about one year of school. I pay [my loan] back monthly. It’s about $350 a month. All things considered, San Diego State is on the cheaper side for colleges. My sister went to UCSB and has a lot more debt than me, and she graduated in three years. I will be paying my student loans off for I think, 15 years. I have it on autopay and I just try not to think about it.”

Mussey graduated from SDSU with a degree in recreation tourism management. His grade point average was a 2.9, a far cry from the 4.3 he received in high school.

“I do think that going to college in your hometown inhibits you. Throughout college I had my same friends from high school. I did a lot of the same things. I was stuck in the same routine of the things I did when I was a freshman in high school.”

When Mussey graduated college, he had been working at the SDSU pool for almost five years and was coaching junior varsity water polo at his old high school.

“I was a manager at the SDSU pool. It was kind of starting to feel like I was part of the work force, but at the same time it was an on-campus job. It had to have an end point. They would’ve let me work there for six more months after I graduated, but I knew I had to get something going. I saved up a good amount after I graduated college to have enough to keep me going for a little while. I was excited to be done with college, but always, in the back of my mind, I had apprehension about finding a real job. I knew I would have to start paying off my student loans in about a year. I knew I would need a car soon and that I would need to move out of my parents’ house, because I was 22 years old.”

In-state private school graduate

When Karsin Gowdy was in elementary school she already had her life mapped out. The blue-eyed, blonde-haired San Diego native knew she wanted to be a teacher and she knew she wanted to study and Concordia University in Irvine.

"It is expensive here. I mean, realistically, I wouldn’t say I am making it.”

"It is expensive here. I mean, realistically, I wouldn’t say I am making it.”

I meet up with Gowdy at a Starbucks near her Del Cerro Condo.

“As a kid I would force my little brother to play school with me. I would get upset if he wanted to play videogames instead of learning addition,” Gowdy reminisces with a smile.

Gowdy attended a small Christian elementary school. From there she went onto another small school, Victory Christian High School in Chula Vista. After that she went on to Concordia University in Irvine. In 2016, the year 24-year-old Gowdy graduated, the school’s student body was 5455 people.

“When I was in high school and thinking about what colleges to go to, I only had Concordia on my mind. I didn’t apply anywhere else. Thank God I got in! When I was in 5th-8th grade my school would take trips up there for handbells concerts. I got to see the school a lot. I just loved it. I loved the campus, and I thought they had the best french fries in their cafeteria.”

Concordia University, a private Christian University in the hills between Irvine and Laguna Beach, has a 59 percent acceptance rate. Full-time students pay $32,780 for tuition and fees. Luckily for Gowdy, her dad served in the Navy so the G.I. bill picked up a hefty amount of her tuition. Her church also picked up a portion since she was going to school to be a called church worker.

Gowdy explains, “There were still some things I had to pay out of pocket through a loan type of thing. I have about $24,000 in debt. That it isn’t too bad. I am actually really fortunate considering how expensive Concordia is. I could have had way more loans had it not been for the military helping out. It’s not that bad. The monthly loan I pay off is $250. Even though I sometimes complain about how hard it is, I know how fortunate I am compared to other people.”

Gowdy majored in liberal studies and graduated with a 3.5 grade point average.

She found her dream job

A year or so outside graduation, Skyler Henry, Ryan Mussey, and Karsin Gowdy, aren’t where they expected to be.

Upon graduation Skyler Henry received job offers in New York.

“I was working as an intern at [the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.] I could’ve continued on there. I got a job offer to work as a paralegal in an environmental law firm. I also got an offer to run an art studio in Brooklyn. That would’ve been super fun. I would’ve lived the New York hipster lifestyle for sure. I would’ve been a totally different person. But, the issue was, New York is really expensive to live in, not that San Diego is not, I would figure that out. But in New York, I would have to live in a scary area to afford it.”

Henry moved back home. She missed the weather, she missed her baby sister who was now four years old and barely knew her.

“Seasonal depression is a real thing. I need the sun,” Henry says of her decision before explaining further, “After graduation I flew back home. I lived with my parents for like two months while I was trying to figure stuff out. I had just gone through a big break up at the end of my senior year. That person and I were supposed to move back to San Diego together. After the break up I thought “Do I even move back? Eff that whole plan? Maybe I’ll move to Europe. Maybe I’ll play professional water polo in Spain or Australia. I actually tried out for the U.S.A National Team twice. I didn’t ever make it to the final round, but I could have kept playing water polo. That was an option. After graduation, honestly, I was all over the place. It is so scary. It is so scary when you graduate.”

In San Diego, Henry did not have much luck scoring a job in her field. She ended up working for a family friend’s construction business for a few months. She moved into a small apartment in Kearny Mesa that she shared with a couple of international students. “My rent there was $750 in a ghetto little three-story apartment building. It was not nice at all.”

Henry drove out to Ocean Beach one day to look at a rental near the ocean.

“I showed up at this dude’s house in OB. He ran a solar company out of his house. We chatted a bit and I told him what I majored in. He was like, ‘Girl, you have no income, why would I rent to you? But I’ll give you a job,’ I worked for him for a little while, but he turned out to be not a good person. It was a legit company, but he was creepy to say the least. There was a lot of [him calling me] baby girl and a lot of meetings at rooftop bars downtown at like 12 pm or at his house. He also ran a web cam girl thing upstairs in his house. I totally dodged a bullet on that one.”

Henry kept in contact with the head coaches from her high school team, Clint and Marcy Mclaughlin. The pair acted as mentors to Henry. They hired her on as their goalie and junior varsity boy’s water polo team coach. Marcy also got Henry into substitute teaching for the Grossmont Union School district and encouraged her to consider becoming a full-time teacher.

“I am not a nice enough person to go into teaching,” Henry explains with a chuckle.

Clint McLaughlin, suggested Henry consider what he does — firefighting. Mclaughlin offered to take Henry on a ride along.

Explains, Henry, “So I did that and everyone was really nice to me. It’s very team-oriented, and it’s a very physical job. I used to work for Pacific Gas and Electric up in Sacramento, I had an internship there for one summer during college. I went stir crazy just sitting in a desk all day. I hated the whole thing. I hated every day going to work. I told myself, ‘No more offices,’. Firefighting just kind of checked all my boxes. I like being around guys more than girls. It’s easier to not hurt feelings, and you can shot the shit a little easier. It was just cool. The stuff they do is really cool. We had a cool car accident that day on the 805 freeway. I realized that I don’t get nauseated at blood or gore. Someone handed me a baby to hold, and the baby asked if her mommy was going to jail.”

While Henry is explaining all of this her demeanor changes. Her smile brightens and her tone takes on a serious note, “It was crazy and exciting, and it was just a ride along. I realized almost immediately that this is what I wanted to do. I teared up, I thought, “This is what people say when they have found their calling. I wondered why I hadn’t thought of that career path before. But I mean, how often do you hear the term female firefighter? Everyone says firemen. It’s just not something [women see themselves as].”

Since then, Henry has been working hard to take the necessary steps to become a firefighter. She registered for and completed EMT certification and training at Miramar.

“Now I am in testing with San Diego Fire. I am taking their written test. After that, in a few months they will tell me when my physical test is. Then, they will tell me when, or if, I get an interview. The application process for fire takes about a year from when you apply to go through at which point you find out if you are in the academy. From there, it can take another year. I am just trying to get through that stuff.” Henry says with a hint of apprehension.

She adds, “It takes some people years — we are talking seven or eight years of applying every year until they get in. That is where I am setting my expectations. Being athletic, being tall, having a degree, having EMT experience, all of those things are in my favor and make me look better. It’s like a point system so all of those things help. I mean I have thought about water rescue for San Diego fire because obviously I can swim. I have thought about being an engineer, being a captain, and... I just met a female chief. That would be cool.

In the meantime, Henry is squeaking by.

“Right now, I am able to pay my rent and cover my student loans with my salary as an EMT, but not on a regular 40-hour schedule. So, it’s hard. I make $12.42 an hour, but that is not what I get paid for my whole 12-hour shift. I get paid that for the first eight hours. The time after that, I am getting time-and-a-half. If they hold me over after 12 hours, I am getting double time. I have done two 12-hour shifts back to back and for that whole second 12 hours, I got double time.”

Henry splits her rent and ends up paying $675 a month. Her utilities run her around $150, car insurance is $100, health insurance is $40 per paycheck, and another $1000 goes toward her student loan.

“I mean, it’s tight but it’s fine,” Henry says of her income, “My best friend from high school lives in Greenville, South Carolina. She works at like Geico or something. I think she makes about $40,000 a year. She is buying a house right now all by herself. Her mortgage is like $700 bucks a month for a two-bedroom on a quarter acre. But, I think people my age can survive in San Diego. It is definitely hard. You can’t do it by yourself. You have to have a roommate, I mean unless you are making about $70,000 a year. Ryan, my boyfriend, has a big boy job. Even him, with how much he makes, he would struggle on his own here.”

The big boy job

When Ryan Mussey graduated in 2016, he began looking for work in his field. He interviewed at the big hotels in town hoping to score a quality job in his field.

“I thought having a tourism major was going to give me an in to stay in San Diego, because we have a ton of opportunities here,” Mussey explains, “After graduation I was trying to look for hospitality jobs. What I was finding with that was they were looking for part time workers, which was not going to sustain me financially, or the base salary to start was so, so, low. I was kind of prepared for that, but when I was in college I was thinking I would be able to find something. I was in denial.”

Ryan saw himself working at a resort and planning activities.

“I didn’t really see myself working low-level jobs. I thought I would be able to step into something a little bit higher level. I wasn’t expecting to walk in and be a manager, but I thought a college degree, and being a native Californian in hospitability, would at least get me something higher-level than a seasonal position that was basically towel boy. I thought I would get beyond that. But, those opportunities were not presenting themselves.”

After a disastrous interview at the Hotel Del where he was offered a part time position and interviewed with a guy that was a wannabe record producer whose only interview questions revolved around vacation time, Ryan decided to look outside his field. His mom put his resume on the desk of a higher up at her company, a lending firm called LightStream. They called him in for an interview.

“I went into it skeptically, but I needed something to pay the bills. I had been unemployed at that time for about two solid months. My reserve was running dry. They hired me, and I have been there now a year and a half.”

Mussey is a fraud analysist and starts his day at 7 am. He works inside all day behind a desk facing two computer screens.

“It is totally different from my schooling. They asked me during my interview, ‘You majored in tourism, and now you want to work for a bank?’ I think what it comes down to is, the financial situation here in San Diego, with this job I can sustain myself. I would not consider myself to be necessarily struggling financially. However, now I am in this job which is the last thing I wanted to do. If you asked me three or four years ago, this would be the last thing I would want to do. But it is paying. It has consistent hours. In hospitality you have no idea if you are working Saturdays or Sundays or holidays until midnight or three in the morning,” Ryan explains grimly.

Ryan started out in the company’s call center and has worked his way up to a fraud analyst. His current salary is $57,200. The median annual salary of SDSU college graduates is $46,100. After his student loan bills, rent, car payment, phone, utilities, and car insurance, and health insurance he has about $1000 left over every month.

Ryan tells me, “I one hundred percent feel like an old guy. My work is sedentary. I wake up in the morning feeling sore. At 24 years old I feel like I have the body of a 50-year-old. I never really understood the term rat race, until I got in it and I realized, man, it does feel like that. Every day is the same and then all of a sudden, your alarm is going off the next day. Every morning I feel like ‘Wow, how is my alarm already going off again today?”

Any positives?

“I don’t have to wear a tie. I can wear whatever I want. I mean, I try not to wear sweatpants and things like that, but some people do. I feel like I hold myself to a higher standard. Some of my coworkers honestly seem like they just roll out of bed and come straight in. More power to them, but I at least try to put real pants on,” Ryan tells me with a smirk.

As for his future plans, Mussey says he’ll stay at his current job but he is almost always looking elsewhere. As soon as he feels that there is no longer upward momentum he’ll seek out another job.

“On my current salary, I don’t feel it would be feasible for me to be a homeowner. I find it upsetting. In high school a lot of my friends were like, ‘I am so ready to get out of San Diego, and experience seasons and see something different.’ I get that. There is nothing wrong with that. But I love it here. I love Southern California. I am a prideful San Diegan. For me to think about not owning a home here is a little bit scary and a little bit sad, because I would be happy to live here my whole life!”

I don’t plan on staying in San Diego

As for Karsin Gowdy, the plan to obtain her teaching certification to become an elementary school teacher was put on hold after getting engaged in college. The couple planned to marry soon after graduation, but the wedding was called off.

Straight out of school she took a job working for the same event company she worked at during high school. That August, her church hired her on as a preschool teacher.

“It’s been great. Teaching preschool is not what I ever thought I would do, but I really love it. I still feel the calling to be an elementary school teacher, but I have to go back to school to get my credential, and I haven’t done that yet. That process, depending on where you go is a year, or maybe a year and a half. I have been saying I am going to go back. But I haven’t done it yet, because I have been busy with my preschool job and I have been enjoying it. I think I’ll do that in the fall,” Gowdy says with a shrug.

Gowdy moved out of her parent’s house about a year ago. A coworker offered to allow her to move into her condo, charging her a measely $650 in rent.

“She gave me a deal, because she said she remembered what it was like when she was just starting out as a teacher. I know I have this great deal for my rent and student loan, but I don’t make a lot at the preschool. I make about $2000 a month. With my rent, with my student loan, car loan, and car insurance that eats up my paycheck. After that I have about $200 left give or take. Sometimes I will work overtime or pick up extra shifts at my event job that I have on the side. There are months where I am really fortunate where I have $400 left because I worked so much overtime or picked up extra shifts.”

On the average, Concordia graduates make a median salary of $42,500 ten years after graduation. So Gowdy is right on point. Although, that income does not go far in San Diego. Gowdy admits that most months she barely makes enough to fill her gas tank.

“Things happen. Yesterday, I got a flat tire. I had to buy a new tire for $100, and I had just $100 left in my bank account. I had to dip into my savings. My savings haven’t really been growing because I keep having to dip into them.”

Gowdy is thankful to have a strong community to lean on. If she is low on groceries, she fills up at her parents’ house. School families often bring in snacks, so most lunches she eats what they bring.

Still, Gowdy says, “I don’t plan on staying in San Diego. I was born and raised here. I have been here my whole life. I mean, yeah, I like the weather, it’s nice. But, I am ready for a new experience. I want a new adventure. I think I think I will try to find a teaching job out of state. I would like to go somewhere cold like Seattle. I would be willing to go to another country. It is expensive here. I mean, realistically, I wouldn’t say I am making it.”

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Student loans are a scam, the only loans in America you can't void through bankruptcy (since 1998). If you wish to know how bad the default rate is and how we got to a trillion dollars in student debt, stick the term "StudentLoanJustice dot org" into your search engine; the founder of that website, Alan Collinge, writes about one op-ed column to a national publication every couple of months.

I have a few questions for all these students...did their parents not chip in to pay their tuition? Did their parents do any counseling as far as major choice, etc? Is the concept of going to community college and working through an education not even a thought for kids heading to college these days?

The author chose these three grads just because they were carrying big student loan debt. One got a scholarship far away and incurred debt for living expenses, the next one studied locally and still ended up owing a lot, and the third went to a church school that charged plenty. All now have a massive burden.

Did they consider less-costly ways to get an education? Who knows. Whatever they may have thought about, they made their choices, "girls and boices." And now they have to pay, pay, pay.

When this present notion of borrowing, and borrowing massively, to finance a college degree came along, it seemed to simple. Students would borrow the money they needed (which wasn't going to be all that much), and upon graduation would get good-paying situations that would allow a payoff with little sweat. Those were the assumptions, neither of which applies today. To borrow your way to a BA/BS degree now, you need to plan to borrow plenty. And there is no reason to assume you can get a job that pays so much that you can easily pay off the loan(s). One thing that all that student debt did was to enable the colleges and universities to raise their tuition and fees at a rate that far exceeded general consumer price hikes. That is, the more students could borrow, the more the schools could and did charge.

The real deal here is that the long-held expectation of a college education paying for itself, and paying fairly quickly, is no longer valid. (It never really was true for many grads, but society bought into it nonetheless.) And now these grads with few or no career skills and a mountain of debt are faced with a life of deprivation, little hope for family formation, little hope of home ownership, and constant struggle. It's a scandal, and still there's no real awareness of how big a mess student debt is. A sad, sad story.

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