College is expensive. That is a well-known fact. College also creates debt. Lots of it. Over a trillion in the U.S., in fact.
The measures students take to rid themselves of their ever steepening mountain of debt typically range from working part/full time jobs to applying for scholarships.
That doesn’t quite do the trick anymore.
College students across the country plead something similar to former SNL favorite Kristen Wiig’s famous line from “Bridesmaids”: Help me, I’m poor.
Much like Wiig, University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee junior Nichole Elsner often laughs at the amount of student loan debt she has. But she’s doing something a little different, and a lot controversial, to help pay it off. Her doe-like, steel gray eyes have scanned over every piece of information given to her, and she is aware and knowledgeable of every possible complication and side-effect. With a comedic demeanor, she is confident her choice is the right one.
Elsner, 20, recently signed on with a fertility research company in Chicago to begin donating her eggs – an endeavor that, if all goes well, will take a $7,000 chunk out of her current debt. The One Wisconsin Institute states that a typical bachelor degree holder will spend around 21 years paying off their college loans. Elsner estimates that she will have racked up around $60,000 in debt by the time she graduates.
Affordability in the UW has been a growing concern in the past year among some, as UWM and other UW schools grapple with what they call unprecedented budget cuts. State officials implemented a tuition freeze. UWM’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors recently presented a list of six principles to the chancellor’s committee studying efficiency and cuts. Number 6: “Education is a right: students at UWM have a right to affordable college education. Ensure that in restructuring the university, costs are not passed on to students.”
Learned about egg donation from social media
On top of studying social psychology and interpersonal communications at UWM, Elsner also works 40 hours per week at her managing job at a retail store. Moreover, she is completely financially independent from her parents, and has been since she was 18.
Elsner said that she recalls seeing articles and advertisements about donating eggs on social media but didn’t take it seriously at first. Then she saw the price package.
“I read more about it, and I was like, wow, I could do this,” she said, “I thought, this is a really good idea, and I’m in a lot of college debt. Let’s do it.”
The process required Elsner to take a trip down to Chicago to a fertility clinic (which she would like to stay anonymous) for a thorough, five-hour evaluation. The clinic runs various tests on the candidates: a blood test, personality evaluation, a full physical, a PAP smear, a comprehensive family history and background check, and an ultrasound.
When she turns 21 in January, Elsner’s profile will go live on the clinic’s website where families will be able to look at her health history, education and photos. If she is picked, the family or individual(s) and Elsner will meet separately with attorneys to discuss possibly meeting the child when they turn 18.
“If my possible offspring want to meet me, I want to give them the option, because I’m assuming I’ll be pretty (expletive) cool,” Elsner joked.
When the egg extraction process begins, she will need to drive to Gurnee, Illinois every day to take various hormone shots that will shoot her ovaries into hyper drive. The potential side effects, notably ovary hyper stimulation syndrome and ovarian torsion, are frightening and are what Elsner says turns most women away from the process.
“The side effects are horrifying, but I think it’s worth the risk to help both a woman achieve her goal to have a child and help me pay for school,” Elsner said, “But, this really isn’t a good option for girls unless you’re broke and determined like me.”
The time and effort she will put in to this process is what the $7,000 stipend will compensate for.
In addition to being financially independent, Elsner does not have health insurance. She has a small deductible on her mother’s health insurance plan, which was completely used earlier in 2015 when she became seriously ill and was hospitalized. The fertility clinic has proved to be an alternative way for Elsner to get checked out by doctors. The eggs she donates the first time, she says, will go only to one family. That way, she is able to do more donations to other families in the future.
If the process goes as planned, Elsner will be able to take care of almost 12 percent of her college debt for each donation she gives to the clinic, and even more if she gets picked to become a surrogate.
Debt adding up quickly
Exhausted from a full-time job and full-time school, Elsner works her hardest to keep up, but has fallen behind at school, which will tack on extra time at UWM. On loans since freshman year, her debt is adding up quickly.
The $250 million slash from the University of Wisconsin system budget worries UWM Chancellor Mark Mone, who has said previously that the budget cuts could lead to larger class sizes because of the potential of fewer classes offered. He has said students could have a hard time graduating within four years.
In a study funded by the U.S. Department of Education and The Education Trust, UW-Milwaukee falls steeply behind UW-Madison in terms of helping poor students. UWM discounts 40 percent off tuition for low-income families, 20 percent less than UW-Madison, a statistically richer city. Moreover, the non-repayment rate for Pell students is 23 percent over a three-year rate versus 7.5 percent for UW-Madison.
In 2013, nearly two-thirds of undergraduates at UWM took out federal loans.
Working full time as it is, while trying to maintain her heath and a social life, Elsner doesn’t see any other opportunities that will help her financially this significantly or this quickly.
Egg donation to help pay for college received national headlines in 2013 when a blog was published on the Huffington Post by a woman who praised the process and how it helps women. In the last few years, fertility clinics like Georgia’s Reproductive Biology Associates specifically seek college females.
The process itself is private, but Elsner doesn’t think it has to be. She says that college should be expensive, but not as expensive as it is.
“The fact that I’m resorting to this to help pay for school is sickening,” she said, “I want UWM to know what I have to do to pay for my schooling here. This feels like my only option.”
Support and criticism
Elsner has received an enormous amount of support from family and friends. Still, some question her decision and worry for her health. A co-worker of Elsner told her that fertility treatments, surrogacy, etc. are “messed up.” The co-worker told her to “stop playing God.”
As Elsner describes it, genetics are just that. She has an adopted sister of her own, and despite not being blood related to her, she considers her a full sibling. Donating her eggs or even being a surrogate wouldn’t bother her, Elsner said. She understands the various stigmas associated with egg donation especially religious beliefs, none of which bothers her.
Elsner isn’t scared. She is determined to graduate with her degree in psychology and hopes to one day become a lobbyist, and even start a family of her own.
“If I was to advise other people at UWM who are financially independent, I’d tell them to not screw around,” she said, “Get a degree. Work hard. It’s not going to be easy.”