Kevin and Toni Fisher* welcomed their first child a few weeks ago. When Elliott is old enough to go to college, they’ll still have seven years left on their student loan payments.
A few decades ago, young, urban, professionals like Kevin and Toni Fisher* would have been living their dreams. With their combined low six-figure income, the Fishers would have been funding their retirement plans to the max, upgrading their vehicles every couple of years, and taking exotic vacations to Far East destinations. Instead, the couple is staying put in their 900-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment, wondering if they can save for their son’s college education while paying for their own.
The Fishers are two of the more than 40 million individuals who are paying off Americans’ $1.2 trillion college loan debt. Their combined undergraduate and graduate school loans, totaling more than $210,000, are causing many of their dreams to be deferred.
“We’d love to move to a home in our current neighborhood,” says Kevin, an information technology director for a mid-sized company. “But we can’t get a mortgage to buy anything here; our debt-to-income ratio is too high.” He looked to purchase a home in a less-desirable area, but with student loan debt damaging their credit score – meaning higher mortgage interest rates – and the added requirement of private mortgage insurance, or PMI, even some less-desirable neighborhoods became out of reach. Yet while the family is figuring out their housing options, they know that they are in a better situation than many of their peers.
“I have friends who stopped going to school, because they didn’t want to take out any more loans,” explains Kevin, whose wife is a director at an educational non-profit organization. “But they already had accumulated a lot of debt, didn’t graduate and now they can’t get the job they want. They’re really in a stranglehold, but those are the kind of crazy choices student loan debt is causing some people to make.”
Big decisions; young age
At a time in their lives when they have the least amount of financial knowledge, young people are making a major financial decision for which they don’t really understand the consequences. “There isn’t a high school student anywhere who isn’t told to go to college. … It will help you get a job,” Kevin says. “So we did what we were told, but it came attached to college loans. Many of us took out $100,000 of debt to get a $50,000 a year job. We needed to be better informed about what a career paid before we got into obscene debt for it. It doesn’t make a lot of sense; it’s making life very difficult.”
With college costs spiraling ever upward and the job market still sluggish, many young people are questioning whether a college education is worth it. For certain, college graduates on average make more money than individuals with only a high school degree, but students who come out of college with little or no debt have a huge advantage over graduates with a debt load.
“As far as helping me get a job, I’m not sure college helped me so much with that,” Kevin says. “Learning on the job is what has always helped me get my next job. In my field, companies care whether you can do the job, not where you went to school. They want to know can you keep their systems running and that you know what to do if the system goes down.”
Nearly three years ago, the government began income-based prepayment plans to help make federal student loan payments more manageable. While these plans lower a person’s monthly payment, they also stretch the loan payback out over more years and can significantly increase the amount of interest paid over the life of the loan.
“If it wasn’t for my faith, depression and despair could come in easy,” says the young dad. “I’d love to throw a chunk of cash at my student loans to help knock it down, but it’s just not there right now. My wife and I just keep trusting God and know that He’s going to work it out. That’s what keeps us diligent about paying it off, even though it seems we’re getting nowhere with it.”
As he sits at his desk with his newborn cradled in his arms, Kevin whispers his hard-won wisdom, his words of advice to today’s high school graduates who can’t afford to pay for a four-year college on their own: “Two years at a community college and then find a liberal arts college that’s going to help you out significantly. Don’t get caught in the student loan trap.”
*Not their real names, but a true account of one family’s experience with student loan debt.
Maisie Sparks is a writer and author. Her newest book, 151 Things God Can’t Do, was released on Oct. 27.