Once a month I have a day of reckoningwith my past,
certainly my present, and unfortunately my future. That day
is "bill day." When it rolls around, I set aside an
entire evening, gather my "bill box" and any loose
statements, my checkbook, stamps and envelopes, and scrap
paper for adding. I usually put on relaxing music or some
mindless television, and turn off the phone.
I am a thorough and meticulous money manager. I have to
be. You see, in addition to my fixed bills (rent, gas,
insurance, phone) and essential needs (food and
transportation), I pay 21 percent of my income toward student
Simplicity of lifestyle is a value choice Ive made.
I am thankful I can live out that choice on my budget.
Im grateful I have been able to find a job that
reflects my values, a luxury in todays marketplace. I
realize I could find work that would provide greater
financial securityat least a bigger paycheckbut
my job provides me with opportunities to live out my values,
my ideals, and my faith. I choose to work with an
organization I love, doing work I care about and things I am
But on bill day I question my choicesnot for long,
but I question. And this makes me angry, mostly about the 21
percent that makes everything just that much more difficult.
My small amount of disposable income, in the present and for
a long time into the future, limits my options concerning
proper health care and unanticipated emergency expenses. I
didnt realize the consequences in my life of taking out
school loans when I cashed that first check nine years ago.
TODAYS STUDENTS ARE no strangers to loans. According
to The Economist, students who borrow to pay for
college graduate with an average of more than $7,500 in debts
for a public education and nearly $11,000 for private
colleges. For many this debt is compounded by the necessity
of postgraduate or specialized degrees in order to compete
for jobs in their fields or for sustainable, living-wage
salaries. As many social service fields are
"professionalized," the need for advanced degrees
for the most basic jobs is amplified.
An annual survey of freshman by the UCLA Higher Education
Research Institute (HERI), reported by the Chronicle of
Higher Education, found that students are worried about
having enough money to complete their education, with 51
percent reporting some concern about financing college and an
additional 18 percent not sure if they will have enough funds
to complete college. "Obviously the cost of college has
become a factor in students college choice
process," says Dr. Linda Sax, associate director of
HERI. Students are choosing colleges that offer more
attractive financial aid packages with hopes of avoiding
Not only can the fear of indebtedness affect which college
one chooses to attend, but whether one pursues a college
education at all. According to Thomas Mortenson, policy
analyst and author of the newsletter Postsecondary
Education Opportunity, the United States has moved
aggressively from a financial aid system consisting primarily
of need-based grants to one that is loan-based. "That
works fairly well for middle-income people," Mortenson
says. "It does not work at all well for low-income
people. Loans are more properly viewed as barriers to
educational opportunities than vehicles to educational
For lower-income people "college is a relatively
risky investment decision," says Mortenson. "If my
estimates are correct, only about one in five that starts
college is going to graduate, or at least have a
bachelors degree, by age 24. That means four out of
five, when they look at that debt, are not likely to get the
degree and gain access to the jobs that will enable them to
repay the debt."
Indeed, for some, college is simply not a choice at all;
it is viewed as a luxury. For others, college is not part of
their career plan; their vocational goals are not furthered
by a four-year degree.
College has become a gamble, an investment without
guarantees. If pursued, it can be a race to stay on top of
mounting debt. In October 1995, Rolling Stone reported,
"If a college degree is still a ticket to the American
Dream, the cost of that ticket continues to rise at more than
twice the rate of inflation. Todays college students
work harder for their degrees than their parents did."
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the
average full-time college student works 25 hours a week to
pay for tuition, room, and board. HERIs survey reveals
that 41 percent of college freshman expect to work to pay for
college expenses, and that 6.4 percent expect to work
full-time. And the unwritten story is the impact on career
"tracks" this system imposes on those students who
must balance individual goals with visions for the common
When we examine how student loan indebtedness limits
career and lifestyle choices, we begin to realize the real
cost to society of an educational system that necessitates
such debt. It is when the "cost" becomes the
sacrifice of ideals and values of the individual that society
as a whole suffers.
STACY ROSEVEAR attended Western Washington University, a
state school in Bellingham, Washington. She worked 20 to 30
hours per week, and graduated after five years with $15,000
in student loans and substantial credit card debt. That debt,
and the fear of acquiring more, has affected nearly all of
her choices since she first considered college.
Stacy was accepted by several public and private schools,
some with academic- and skill-based scholarships, but felt
financial pressure to choose the last school on her list. The
grants offered by the other schools were "a drop in the
bucket" compared with the overall cost of Western
After graduating, Stacy volunteered for a year with the
Lutheran Volunteer Corps. This required a commitment to
LVCs three tenets of working for social justice, living
in intentional spiritual community, and living simply. Stacy
chose this program for its mission statement and spiritual
Even for those college graduates with desires to serve the
needs of poor and marginalized people, options are limited by
the debt accrued for the education necessary to provide the
service. Decisions not to volunteer, or to work with a
government-sponsored agency that will help with loans (such
as AmeriCorps), are more financially attractive, and thus
overriding, when compared with faith-based or
community-oriented social justice programs that do not
receive governmental funding.
Stacy plans on working for two to five years toward her
loan repayment before going back to school. "I plan on
going to seminary, and I would love to do that right now but
there is no way that I can with the loans I have."
LISA TODD AND Stuart Iseminger both have masters
degrees in social work. Both attended smaller, faith-based,
liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. They now work for
non-profit social service agencies in Chicago, and are
committed to a non-consumptive, justice-oriented lifestyle.
They pay more than $500 a month in various student loan
payments. The birth of their son, Levi Casmir, has prompted
substantial changes, and has brought home the effects of some
of their financial decisions.
Lisas interest in her future alma mater was first
piqued while reading an undergraduate brochure. "The
paragraph that jumped out at me, in the midst of my
familys financial situation, was, No student will
be turned down because of ability to pay tuition,"
remembers Lisa. "I saw that and wondered if they were
serious. Can this really be true? In my mind, naive as I was,
I really thought they cared that everyone got the college
education they deserved and that they were going to be
looking out for me."
Loan indebtedness has affected Lisas and
Stuarts choices but hasnt altered their basic
commitments, including the decision to have children.
"Weve just gotten used to living a very
Lisa and Stuart have thought about Levis college
financing already, should he choose to attend, even though
there is no way to anticipate how expensive it will be when
Levi is college-age. Whereas Lisas family was not able
to help her with college costs, she hopes to be able to help
Levi with some of the cost of his education.
Long-term debt forces parents to make monumental choices
such as when and if to have children. Loan debt produces a
ripple or domino effect touching almost all aspects of a
parents life and the life of the child, including his
or her education and upbringing. An additional guilt exists
for those earning a lower incomein order to do justice
and bring healing to communities in needthat their
choices will affect their childrens future.
JACKIE AND BOB are working with their son, Peter, to plan
for his entrance into college next year. At first their
situation sounds typical. Peter is a high school senior. With
his parents he is comparing financial aid packages, looking
at what different universities have to offer, doing the
Peter is looking at colleges in the $15,000 a year range.
Bob and Jackie have determined that with grants, a modest sum
Peters great-grandmother put aside in a trust for his
education, and scholarships, Peter would need to come up with
around $2,000 a year for his education. That would leave him
with a debt of approximately $10,000 upon graduation.
According to their calculations, Jackie and Bob would be
responsible for $6,000 a year for his tuition. Bob says,
"If I can help it, I certainly dont want Peter to
come out heavily indebted."
This sounds fairly reasonable and somewhat typical of two
fully employed, middle-class parents who want to help their
child with his education. But Jackie is herself returning to
school for Imago therapy licensing and Bob is taking a job
with a significant pay cut.
Bob and Jackie are following their hearts. "I could
not delay anymore something that had been growing for more
than five years," says Bob. "Wanting to align my
work with things that are important to me, I needed to take
the plunge and try, even though I dont see how
everything is going to work out.
"It does feel a bit scary and uncertain. Not a very
opportune time for my wife to go back to school and for me to
take a pay cut." Theyre worried, but the
alternative if they wait for Peters sister, Catherine,
to finish college, according to Bob, is, "My heart might
WHAT IS THE cost of education to society? Often it is our
hearts. We are trapped by a system that allows and encourages
the exploration of our individual potential. We are taught
that with a college education our options are limitless. But
upon graduation the payments of hundreds of dollars a month
becomes a reality. And that vision of everything we could be
eludes us, remaining just out of grasp. We become slaves to
There are alternatives to the system we currently have in
place. Income-contingency loans, which adjust repayment
depending on a students ability to pay, were first
implemented in 1993. Hopes that this type of loan would
lessen the burden of debt and decrease the rate of default
are theoretically sound. Unfortunately, the manner in which
this loan program is administered makes it ineffective and
renders it nearly inaccessible to most students.
Some medical, law, and education programs offer loan
repayment or tuition breaks to students who commit to work in
the public sector for a set amount of time after graduation.
Perhaps this program could be expanded to include other work
for the common good.
In many countries education is treated as a truly public
opportunity. Students are required to pay little or nothing
out of pocket for undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. In
Australia, students receive what is, in effect, a direct
student loan. They can choose to defer repayment until their
income reaches the minimum salary threshold, when the tax
office will deduct payments at approximately 3 percent per
year until the debt is paid.
Mark Schwehn, Dean of Valparaiso Universitys Christ
College, an alternative honors program, teaches a class
to seniors titled "Love and Vocation." He says,
"What Ive seen repeatedly is that students will
enter, lets say, law school because they have a longing
to change the world in areas like environment or poverty law
or family law. Along the way they wind up adding to their
undergraduate debt and decide that they really need to go
corporate, to go to a fast-track firm so they can earn enough
money to meet these loan obligations."
Former Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) has taken an avid interest
in postsecondary education funding for years. He is a
supporter of income-contingency loan programs and of
heart-conscious career choices. He says, "You dont
have to have great imagination to understand that if you
become a lawyer, youre going to be able to pay that
loan back much more rapidly. We need teachers, we need social
workers, we need people who are not just looking at how they
can get into a profession that allows them to pay back their
What is the senators concern for those affected by
loan debt? "When students come in here and tell me,
I would really like to do this, but I have a job that
offers me more money doing something else, I say, Do
what you enjoy. Dont go for the money. But if that
situation is compounded by heavy debt, people are shifted in
the wrong direction."
Schwehn shared a saying with me: "There are two ways
you can be equally filled. One is to get everything your
appetite would ask and the other is to reduce your
appetite." The reduction of appetite is, in truth, a
spiritual discipline, learned in practice by the choices we
make to live simply, serve others, be present parents, be
responsible educators, live faithfully.
Someone who succeeds in this discipline, according to
Schwehn, "is just as filled as someone with larger
appetites and freer to choose work they find fulfilling and
that they can really take as a callingrather than being
compelled to take whatever they can get that is high paying,
even if it is not something they love and fully uses their
What can we do as a nation dedicated to the equal
opportunity of education for all its citizens? We can seek an
investment path that leads to the future, not only to the
JEN KILPS is the Twin Cities staff person for Lutheran
Volunteer Corps and lives in Minneapolis.
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