Student Loans

Student loan debt has been getting a good deal of attention lately, which is good.  For too long, colleges (and the public beyond) ignored how much debt students were having to take on to complete a college degree.  There’s not complete agreement on how much debt students graduate with, but the most common figures range from $28,000 to $29,400, with the Wall Street Journal saying just last month that the 2015 graduating class is the most indebted ever (yet), owing a little more than $35,000, a huge jump from the previous years.  What’s especially bothersome is the rising percentage of students who have to take out loans at all, as nearly 3/4 of students now need to do so.

I’ve been thinking about this subject for the past few years, but I wanted to write about it this week because I made my final student loan payment just a couple of days ago.  I realized that I have had some sort of student loan debt for more than half my life, as I took out my first loan when I was 22, and I’m on the edge of turning 45.  I made my first payment when I was 27, after I took my first job, which means I’ve been paying on them for roughly 18 years.  That’s not exactly true, as I put them into deferrment for three years (at two different points in life) when I went back to graduate school (twice), and I put them into forbearance once for a couple of years, I believe.

That forbearance hints at the reason it took me longer than it should have to pay off my loans.  In that summer before my first job, I didn’t work, so I lived on credit cards.  Part of those expenses were necessities, but a lot of them (and I mean a lot) were not.  Thus, I ran up some significant credit card debt, believing I could pay it off quickly and easily.  That turned out not to be the case.  I then went back to graduate school and doubled my student loan debt in one year.

Quick interesting side note:  If I’m remembering correctly, not a single penny of my loans actually went to tuition.  I didn’t have to take out loans for my undergraduate degree, as I cobbled together enough small scholarships, work study, and off-campus work that lowered my tuition to around $1000 per semester, which my parents paid, while I paid all my living expenses.  My loans helped me through graduate school where I received assistantships that covered the tuition and gave me a small stipend to live on (How small?  One was $5000 per year, which is not really liveable on its own).

After going back to graduate school and doubling those loans, I found myself owing roughly $60,000 in student loan debt (for five and half years of graduate school) and $20,000 in credit card debt.  I was making $28,000 a year as a high school English teacher.  There was no way I could get out of credit card debt while making my student loan payments, so I put them in forbearance (that’s where interest accrues while you’re not paying on them).

My debt, then, was a combination of my poor financial planning, my indecision of what I wanted to do in life (the return to graduate school), and the economic realities of trying to attend graduate school in the 1990s (stipends are much better for graduate students these days, and some even include health care, something we had never heard of).  I can’t imagine what students who graduate with $25,000 or more in loan debt do if they want to go to graduate school.

So, what can a professor do about all of this?  We don’t have anything to do with setting tuition rates, and it’s not like we can create avenues of income for them ourselves.  However, there are still a few things we can do.

First, take their concerns seriously and try to understand the financial strain they’re under, especially when their work impacts your classes.  I wrote an essay years ago (which is no longer online, unfortunately) about jokes at graduation about student loans.  Such comments tell students we don’t understand their situation.  When we don’t at least provide sympathy for their situations (note I’m not saying to adjust course material or simply let students off the hook when they have to work), we convey a lack of concern for the realities of their lives, which are different than how most of ours looked in college.  When we joke about it, we’re just being offensive.

Second, advising matters more than you know here.  If we advise a student poorly, it can lead to him or her having to take another semester of classes or even just having to take one more class in a summer term.  That can lead to serious financial consequences.  My college is rather cheap (comparatively), but causing a student to take another semester’s worth of classes would cost an additional $7500 in tuition.  Books, room, and board (and general living expenses) would easily push that past $10,000, which could all go toward student loan debt, especially if staying an additional semester would push a student past his or her limit on scholarships.  Even if a student only has to take an additional summer class to keep on track, those classes aren’t cheap, and they can cut into a student’s chance to work to save money for college.

Last, professors can push for more scholarships or lower costs around campus, and we should.  Our colleges and universities raise a good deal of money for bigger and better buildings, but we should push our administrations to spend part of that money or raise additional funds for scholarships.  We can push politicians to increase grant money for low-income students, those most in need of help.

We can talk to our students honestly about finances.  We can give them ideas about how they can better manage their money and not make the same mistakes we did (I tell them my story as often as I can).  If we hear of job opportunities on campus, we can make them aware of them and try to help them get them.  We can nominate them for scholarships or write letters for them.

It is easy to feel like we can do nothing to help our students to pay for college, but there are ways we can help them.  They live in a different financial environment that most of us did, and we need to acknowledge that reality.  If we care about our students, we need to find ways to help them get an education we obviously believe in.