Confessions of a middle-aged debtor.
Hello, my name is Laura, and I am a debtor. Last year, at forty-two- years-old, I wrote my final student loan repayment check. Phew…that sounds like a confession at an AA meeting — Hello, Laura. People with student loans might need a support group. Debt, like addiction, is a deep hole one climbs out of day by day. Repayment is similar to a twelve-step recovery program that for many people can last 252 months.
For the first 21 years of our professional careers, my husband and I paid for our education. We never missed a payment, but student loan repayment limited our financial trajectory — it impacted where we lived, what type of cars we bought, decided if we took vacations, and determined how big of a house we purchased. I will never regret my education, and I accepted that it was the price of doing business, but I will always feel the weight of that heavy burden of debt my entire life.
My mother, a single-mother most of my childhood, made very little money, so I did qualify for grants, but most of my education was funded by work and loans. My husband did have the support of his parents, both educators, but with three sons in college and other expenses, their help could only go so far, and their income was too high for my husband to qualify for grants. This perfect storm caused us to begin our marriage with a giant monkey on our backs.
In 1995, I began my teaching career making $28,000 a year. After taxes, rent, student loan payments, food, and utilities, I had about $100 remaining every month. There was absolutely no wiggle room in my monthly budget. When my husband graduated, he earned about $20,000 as a chemist and so with our meager $48,000 combined gross income, and $25,000 in student debt, with mortgaged a $70,000 split-level in the burbs. We were college-educated, we were employed, and we were maxed out. The numbers might have changed over the last twenty years, but this reality is true for many college-educated people across the nation. Increasingly, college graduates are beginning their lives in a deep hole — many are not living the middle-class lifestyle that college education promised.
In 2003, our financial life began to slowly improve. I transferred to a higher paying district, and my husband opened our own business (which deserves another post.) However, we still could not wipe our student debt clean — we bought a more expensive home, we had children, we needed new cars — life happened, and the cost of living increased.
Besides paying the student loans, the mortgage, the car payment, the utilities, food, etc, we have managed to put aside a small amount of money in our daughter’s NY529 college funds. These funds might allow our daughters to begin their lives without that ball and chain of student debt. The Excelsior Scholarship gives me hope that by 2022, the year our oldest is ready for college, she might qualify for the scholarship. (Under current income guidelines, she would qualify.) If tuition was not an issue, my husband and I could swing the room and board for our girls. Furthermore, as currently written, they would need to stay in NY for four years post graduation. This would encourage them to remain close to home. Our oldest has already chosen the northwestern corner of our 40 acres where she will build her dream home.
Although I fear that the political winds will change, or that we will make just a hair pass the qualifying income in 2022, I am happy that states like NY are rethinking the value of investing in higher education. lnvestment in public education (pre-k through college) is truly what a modern, industrialized nation needs in order to compete in a global world.
For thirty-eight years, I have been connected to public education in the great state of New York. Never straying more than 100 miles away from central New York, I attended the Marcellus, West Genesee, Jordan-Elbridge, and North Syracuse public school districts. These four school districts gave me a sanctuary, opportunities, athletics, and quality instruction. I earned my BA in History from the State University of New York at Geneseo and landed my first teaching gig at Wellwood Middle School in the Fayetteville-Manlius public school district. Fourteen years ago, I began teaching at my present location, Liverpool High School. Regardless of size, location, or funding, every time that I have participated in public school education in New York State, I have grown both personally and intellectually. I am a full product of public education. I am made in NY.
When Governor Cuomo announced his plan to offer “free” tuition to SUNY and CUNY students I was excited but skeptical. I wondered how would a state like NY, that has lost people, jobs, and stature, pay for this program? Politicians like Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin of Troy, and Senator John DeFrancisco of Syracuse oppose the idea of the scholarship, these men wonder how the program will be funded. DeFrancisco opposes the tuition hike to non-qualifying students. McLaughlin promotes tax credits instead of tax subsidies. I ask these men a Dr. King type of question: “If not now gentlemen, then when?” Now is the time to amplify what our state still has — quality public education. We may have lost Carrier, GE, and other manufacturing. Those types of jobs are not coming back. Automation has also changed manufacturing and shifted the workforce. New York needs to concentrate on what we do well — we need to continue to lead the nation in education.
Furthermore, I say to Senator DeFrancisco and Assemblyman McLaughlin, please consider New Yorkers like me. I would have qualified for that scholarship. If my daughters were currently college-aged, they would qualify for that scholarship. The cost of education is holding people back and it is helping to erode any semblance of a middle-class lifestyle. New York is not alone, Rhode Island is introducing tuition assistance without income requirements in its upcoming state budget. Tennessee and Oregon already have similar college assistance programs.
If we really want to make America great again, we need to get off the student-debt cycle. It is decreasing the value of education and it is depressing the middle-class. Our children should not have to pay the bill for our unwillingness to invest in their future. Furthermore, states like New York have bled out — young people are not staying. The Excelsior Scholarship and similar programs offer people encouragement and incentives to remain.