Terrance Heath

Student Debt Free, At Last

Filed By Terrance Heath | April 29, 2012 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics
Tags: college education, high school graduation, paying off student loans, student loans

When I graduated from high school, my parents bigstock-Education-Costs-17050139.jpgexpected that I would go to college. I say “expected,” but it was really closer to a demand than an expectation. As my father said, “I don’t know where you’ll go, but you’re going to somebody’s university.” Education was a high priority in our home. Even though neither of my parents went to college, they saw a college degree as the first step towards a “good job” and upward mobility.

We were comfortably middle class. So, I didn’t qualify for much in the way of financial aid. But my parents could not afford to foot the entire bill for my education, even at the public university I chose to attend. My grades were good enough to get me a few scholarships to make that first year easier, but that was it. Like a lot people, I financed my education through student loans.

I was 18-years-old when I went into debt to get an education -- as an investment in my future. That was over twenty years ago. Last year, at the age of forty-two, I finally paid off that debt.

Getting an education shouldn’t mean decades of crushing debt. Tell Congress to stop student loan interest rates from doubling.

Things have changed a lot in the time it took me to pay off my student loans, and not for the better.

Like a lot of graduates today, I had tens of thousands of dollars in debt by the time I finished college. Needless to say, tuition has increased a lot since then. Today, students who go to a public state university like I did are looking at about $32,000 for tuition alone.

Unlike 36 million million Americans who attended college without earning a degree -- but still have student debt -- I at least had a degree to show for it all.

Unlike today’s graduates, I didn’t graduate off a cliff. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average unemployment rate the year I graduated (1993) was just 6.9%, compared to 8.9% today. I didn’t have to contend with chronic unemployment. I didn’t have to start out my career when jobs were scarce. I didn’t have to compete for entry-level positions with people who were the age I am now, because they’d been out of work for so long they were desperate for anything.

I didn’t have to resort to going to grad school because I had no hope of finding employment in an abysmal job market, while putting off repayment and taking on more debt as a result.

Unlike a lot of today’s graduates, I was able to find a job soon after graduation. (I didn’t consider sex-work to pay off student loans, because there were so few other options.)

Like a lot of today’s graduates, my parents helped me out by co-signing for student loans. My parents were happy to help, not just by co-signing for my loans, but making payments for me after I graduated, until I could afford to make them myself. I took over the payments from them when my father retired, and my parents’ had to adjust to living on a fixed income.

Unlike the parents of many of today’s graduates, my mom (who survives my dad) isn’t among the senior citizens still on the hook for $36 billion in student debt. Many of those seniors co-signed loans for children or grandchildren who can’t find work after graduation -- or can’t find work that pays enough to cover living expenses and their student loans.

Like many people, I applied for forbearance on my loans when faced with job loss and other financial difficulties, even though I knew that interest would keep adding up, and that it would take longer to pay off my loans as a result.

When I could afford to start paying again, I decided to pay as much as I could afford. By then, Congress had transformed student debt into lifelong debt. Even bankruptcy can’t wipe it out. The sooner I could get rid of mine the better. Almost twenty years after I graduated, I could finally afford make payments big enough to pay off the remainder of my loans quickly.

(By the way, not everyone with student debt is a twenty-something graduate. People in my age group are piling up student debt faster than anyone elseStudent debt for Americans ages 39 to 45 jumped 50 percent in the last three years. That’s because so many of us are going back to school or paying for mid-career job training, in hopes of getting a better job -- or any job at all -- in the middle of a recession and an unemployment crisis.)

Like fellow college-graduate Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), I worked my way through college. My student loans covered my tuition, but I worked to pay for my room and board. Like Foxx, it also took me longer than four years to graduate, because I worked and went to school part-time.

It may be news to Rep. Foxx, but it’s entirely possible to work your way through college and still graduate with debt. According to her Wikipedia bio Foxx graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1968. Things have changed a lot since then. Think Progress points out that UNC tuition was just $87.50 per semester when Foxx attended.

That's right, Virginia Foxx paid $87.50 in tuition. That was the price of a full semester's tuition at UNC in 1961.  The Chair of the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training is completely out of touch with the very different realities facing today's students.

To be fair, prices have gone up a lot since 1961.  If you take that $87.50 and adjust it for inflation, the actual dollar amount is a whopping $671.30 per semester. Including tuition and fees, Representative Foxx would have paid $279 for the academic year--about $2,140 today. That's about equivalent to what students pay right now at community colleges, not public four-year institutions--especially not public flagships.

In-state students at Representative Foxx's alma mater pay $7,008--more than three times what Foxx paid. It took Foxx seven years to graduate, probably because she was working to put herself through college. During the 7-year period she was at UNC, tuition and fees increased  about 0.6 percent per year. Compare that to UNC students who have seen their tuition and fees increase on average 7.2 percent per year since 2005. UNC students who take fewer classes in order to subsidize their tuition through work have found themselves in a losing battle with steep tuition increases.

President Obama addressed Foxx’s comments directly, when he spoke at her alma mater today.

"She said she had 'very little tolerance for people who tell me they graduate with debt because there's no reason for that.' I'm just quoting here," Obama said. "The students who rack up student loan debt are just 'sitting on their butts having opportunity dumped in your lap.' I'm reading it here. I didn't make this up."

The president is right.

Like today’s graduates, I didn’t take out student loans because I was lazy. Like many young people today, I worked my way through college and took on loans, because no matter how many jobs I had (I’m talking to you, Paul Ryan) I still couldn’t have earned enough to pay all of my expenses. I didn’t have anything “dropped in my lap.” I took out loans to pay my tuition, and worked to pay my room and board, because I believed that both were an investment in my future.

My parents didn’t co-sign for my loans because they were lazy either. My parents believed that education was essential for their children to secure a better future. As I said earlier, my parents were not college educated. They were working class people, one generation removed from sharecropping, who moved up to the middle class at a time when there were still “good jobs” that paid enough for a working-class family to achieve upward mobility.

Like the president said in his speech, I was one of those students whose parents said to themselves “I didn’t get to go to college, but maybe my children can.” Their hope was to provide their children with the kinds of education and opportunities they never had.

That was their dream. I inherited that dream. We sat down more than twenty years ago, took a deep breath, and together we invested in that dream.

Today, I’m a parent who has dreams for his own children. I’m the parent of a bright third-grader with dreams of his own. I’m the parent of a nine-year-old who recently captained his class team in the third grade “Geography Bee”, and who speaks in terms of when he goes to college, not if.  Like me, he picked that up from his parents. One of us is the son of working class parents who believed education would mean a better life for their children.

One of us is the son of immigrants who knew education would help their children the way it helped them. Together, my husband and I are working to secure for our children the same dreams our parents held for us.

We made sure both of our sons had college savings accounts before they could even talk. We hope those savings will be enough when it’s time to send out children off to college. But given the rate at which tuition keeps going up, there’s no guarantee that our children (and us, along with them) won’t have to deal with the difficulties of student debt.

Am I student debt free, at last? I can only hope.

Unlike the student loan industry’s favorite legislator, because of my own experiences I have a lot of sympathy for today’s for what today’s graduates -- and future graduates -- and their families face.

(Education costs graphic via BigStock)


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