Today’s Washington Post profiles the plight of a poor single mother strangled with student loan debt. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/this-life-an-existence-she-loves-under-a-growing-cloud-of-student-debt/2018/01/08/3daac3ce-f32b-11e7-97bf-bba379b809ab\_story.html?tid=sm\_fb&utm\_term=.f3bacb1174f8) It’s not a bad piece. And it highlights a growing problem in our country. But what interested me as I read it is what the WaPo omitted from this profile.
Our struggling heroine is named Sarah. She’s a 31 year old single mom who works as a children’s librarian and owes $69,000 in student loans.
Your first thought is probably “well, if she hadn’t had a baby out of wedlock, she wouldn’t be in this situation.” Which is correct but besides the point because there are plenty of young Americans in debt that AREN’T single parents.
The article states that her $69,000 debt is over twice her annual income. That means she’s earning less than $34,500 a year. That’s not much especially in the Washington, DC area. Sarah decided at the age of 25 to try and better her prospects (good for her) and chose to go back to school (which a lot of young people in her situation would) to acquire a master’s degree. She enrolled in a local college in hopes of becoming a teacher.
Now, I just did a quick Google search to run some numbers.
Starting teachers pay in this young woman’s town is around $40,000 a year ($42K if you have a masters.). That’s not great, but it’s probably way more than she was making at the yarn factory and working as a barista. She graduated from Mary Baldwin College, which charges $30,000 a year for tuition alone. The school clearly fronted her some additional financial aid here, or she would have graduated owing a lot more, but she owed $60,000. Colleges tell students this is an “investment” in your future worth making for the additional income.
Now, if you’re over 50 (or good at math) you probably see what’s
wrong with that thinking immediately. If you’re EARNING $40,000 a year, you’re only taking home $33,000 (give or take) after taxes, social security, etc. So, you have roughly $2400 a month out of which you must pay rent or mortgage payments, utilities, insurance, groceries and all of life’s other necessities (and that’s
if you DON’T have a small child to provide for.)
Another thing you may have noticed is that she graduated owing $60,000, but after 3 years she now owes $69,000. How did that happen? Did she not pay her bills? Well, yes, she did. Every month. She’s on an income-based repayment plan where she pays $280 a month. Without that she’d be paying $780 a month. This article doesn’t state what the interest rate on her loan is, but clearly, she’s accruing more interest than her monthly payment will cover and that’s why she owes more now than she started out with. Without the income plan, her loan would be $780 a month.
It would be really easy to blame this young woman for her own
problems and just write off her story as “Well, she shouldn’t have borrowed money she can’t pay back.” Which is a valid point. But there are three issues this article didn’t touch on that I would ask you to consider:
First, why the heck does a job with such low pay require a master’s degree? She works for a public library. That’s a government job. And her master’s isn’t even in library science! Just what exactly about her “advanced degree” qualified her for this anyway? If you’re a taxpayer in this town, maybe you need to be asking questions.
Second, does her college bear no responsibility here? They took her money (OK, OUR money since the taxpayers are subsidizing this) knowing what her income prospects were. They gave her a degree in education in preparation for a teaching job that she soon quit. Do they not have an obligation to find out if teaching is the right career for her BEFORE pocketing over $100,000 in
tuition money? What if she had failed to graduate? What if she were unable to find a teaching position? Wouldn’t they owe her a refund (and we all know the answer to that is NO!) Did the financial aid officer sit this young woman down and explain to her what she could expect to earn as a teacher and what her
monthly payments on this loan would be? I can tell you from personal experience that they did not.
Which brings me to my last point: what stupid loan officer
approved her for this? If you walked into a bank at the age of 25 and said “I want to borrow $60,000 for a new car. I have no down payment, no credit history and no job. I won’t be able to make any payments for 4 years, and after that I will only be able to pay you back at the rate of $280 a month.” Do you think there’s a bank in the country that would make such a stupid loan? No, of course not. So, what makes student loans any different.
Well, because the federal government guarantees them. Which
means that you and I and every other tax paying American is on the hook for these debts. Your local school or library gets to hire an employee with a master’s degree without paying a salary commensurate with that level of education. The colleges get to raise tuition rates on an annual basis without fear of losing
And what happens to people like Sarah? How does she ever hope to pay off this massive debt she’s got? Well, once again, she’s depending on the federal government. She’s currently in a loan forgiveness program, and if she continues to work for the government and make her $280 monthly payments for another 7 years, her debt will be “forgiven.” Which actually means “In seven years, US taxpayers will end up paying over $70,000 that this person owes but can’t repay.”
THAT’S why you should care. That’s why the problem of young
people borrowing money they can’t ever hope to pay back is a problem for ALL of us. And it’s a problem that will continue as long as the people profiting off this system don’t have to suffer the consequences.