Student Debt — Part 3 of 3: Current Pioneer Valley students prepare for payments after graduation



Last modified: Wednesday, November 25, 2015

AMHERST — During a student-debt rally at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in April, one of the most powerful statements came from a student who could not attend the event.

First-generation college student Aja Gaskins wrote in a statement read by one of her peers that she could barely afford to attend UMass, despite working three jobs. She would have delivered the message in person — but she was at work earning money to pay for UMass tuition and fees.

“I am supposed to be a student,” she wrote. “I came to this university to learn and to contribute to my community and I can barely focus on my academics. I struggle to eat and sleep enough to function throughout the day sometimes ... I could be getting higher grades, doing community service, doing what I came here to do. Instead, I’m at work trying to prove to this university — with money — that I deserve to be here ... Education is a right!”

About 40 students stood listening to the statement, many wearing signs around their necks stating how much student loan debt they currently held; a few totals approached $80,000. Over and over, they chanted Gaskins’ words: “Education is a right!”

Concluding a three-part series on student debt, today’s story examines what current students do to deal with the debt they are amassing before they have to start paying it off.

AGE 19: Rushing through school

Joel Spiegel completed his first year at UMass in May. Because of his financial situation, he is trying to graduate in three years.

Originally from Chicago, 19-year-old Spiegel said discussing college finances was the most difficult conversation he ever had with his father.

“He thought he’d be able to pay for all four years for all three of his kids through undergrad,” Spiegel said, adding that his father is an accountant. “He’s a hard worker and works long hours. My mom lost her job in 2008 and that was a big issue for our family.”

Despite his father’s planning, a combination of in-state tuition increases in Illinois and his mother losing her job meant the family could not afford for Spiegel to graduate debt-free after his two older siblings — six and eight years older — got out of school, he said.

Spiegel said he chose UMass because the cost to attend as an out-of-state student was comparable to the cost to attend the Illinois university system as an in-state student — and UMass also accepted more of his Advanced Placement courses from high school, meaning he would be able to graduate a year early.

“If I graduate in three years, I should have $25,000 worth of debt — but I also realize it is hard to be competitive without a graduate degree, so I’ll probably go on to graduate school and end up having over $60,000 worth of debt,” he said.

Spiegel plans to major in political science and minor in sustainable community development. On his accelerated path, he does not have time for electives.

“The next two years are pretty much mapped out for me — there are classes I have to take,” he said. “I don’t really choose classes. I sign up for the classes I need to take.”

Ideally, Spiegel said he would be exploring other interests and taking courses in other fields. But he does not believe that he can afford to do so, because it would require spending more time in school — and taking on additional debt.

“Student debt is definitely a deterrent in finding your passions,” he said.

UMass Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy said public universities such as UMass provide relatively low-cost education to the majority of American students, but that state funding is critical to making the system work.

As recently as 25 years ago, about 75 percent of the costs of a UMass education were paid by taxpayers, with the remainder being paid by the students. In recent years, it has shifted to below half, Subbaswamy said. And he does not expect that to change soon.

“I just think that there are too many demands for state dollars right now, on the health-care side and unfortunately the criminal-justice system,” he said.

UMass has endured a 25 percent cut in state appropriation over the last several years, which amounts to around 12 percent of the academic budget, he said.

The school tries to be efficient. In January, it ranked 25th in a U.S. News & World Report list of the “most efficient” top universities. The university has recently increased the percentage of students who graduate in five years or less, meaning those students will have less debt to pay off overall, according to Subbaswamy.

At the same time, the university spends heavily to fulfill its academic mission, such as the $200 million spent annually on research, which provides opportunities to students, he said.

UMass Rising, a fundraising campaign that recently reached its $300 million goal a year ahead of schedule, will be used in part to increase need- and merit-based scholarships. According to the campaign website, $55 million of the total will be used to create 500 scholarships and support graduate fellowships, study-abroad programs and career assistance.

“This is really the American model of both helping one another and paying it forward,” Subbaswamy said.

However, tuition at UMass Amherst is on the rise, increasing to more than $25,000 for the 2015-16 school year after a 5 percent increase in both academic fees and room and board, along with a new $250 technology fee approved earlier this year by the board of trustees.

AGE 20: Isolated by debt

Sandwich resident Sarah Fishman applied to several out-of-state colleges, but knew in the back of her mind that she would be going to UMass for financial reasons. Still, she expects to graduate with $80,000 in debt.

Loans make up nearly all of 20-year-old Fishman’s financial aid package, she said. She finished her sophomore year at UMass in May.

“It’s a scary thought because at this point unless you are a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) major, you are pretty much not guaranteed a job as an undergrad,” she said. “It’s a scary thing, to be this much in debt and seek more school and more debt.”

Fishman is majoring in psychology, with a minor in education.

“I’ve never really considered STEM, it’s not realistic,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to keep up.”

When she graduates, Fishman assumes she will have to move back in with her parents. Her older sister lived at home after she graduated from college until she got a job as a real estate agent, which was not the field she studied in school, Fishman said.

While Fishman knows some students share her story, she said it is difficult to find them. Many at UMass do not share her socioeconomic status and did not have to borrow to attend UMass.

Those who do often don’t talk about their debt, she said.

Fishman is reluctant to talk to her parents about her worries related to her debt because she does not think they would be able to help — and she does not want to create stress for them.

“You don’t necessarily want to make your parents more anxious about how you’re doing at school and how you’re dealing with this,” Fishman said of her debt. “You want to give an image to your parents that you’re fine and they have nothing to worry about.”

As far as dealing with the financial aid office, Fishman said she feels like she gets lost in the bureaucracy.

Suzanne Peters, director of Financial Aid Services at UMass Amherst, said her office tries to do its best to provide information to students, but there still can be miscommunication among both current and prospective students, she said.

“I think there is a misconception it will be less expensive than it really is,” Peters said.

Another misconception among students and their families is that the financial piece will somehow be taken care of. Many do not realize they need to take an active role in planning how to pay back loans, she said.

Peters’ office receives inquiries daily, including questions about forms, work study and covering bills — there is no common theme, she said.

Financial Aid Services distributes information to students and prospective students, but not everyone reads what the office sends out, she said.

“The most important thing you can do to be successful is to read what you get, maybe even twice,” she said. “Every year we’re sending them information about loans and it is very important they look at that.”

Ultimately, the financial aid office is not equipped to provide financial literacy to all students, she said. That is something she believes both families and high schools should emphasize more, and earlier.

The office also does not make financial decisions for students. If attending the school is a poor financial decision for a student or that student’s family, that is a decision the student must make, she said.

“Our role is not to tell somebody not to come here; we make sure they are aware of what it may mean to come here,” she said.

AGE 21: Advocating for others

Finance and economics major Filipe de Carvalho, 21, completed his third year at UMass in May and expects to finish school with about $20,000 in debt. He is confident he will be able to find a job to help him pay that sum off when he graduates next May — but in the meantime he is advocating on behalf of others who might have trouble paying off their own loans.

Carvalho holds two work-study jobs on campus, working as a dishwasher at one of the dining commons and serving as the access and affordability director for the Center for Education Policy and Advocacy. In April, he was the moderator of a student-debt rally at UMass.

“I want to do that work and organize around student debt,” he said of his advocacy job. “You definitely learn a lot about people when you sit down and talk to them about their lives.”

At the same time, Carvalho’s two jobs can cut into his study time, and he has not worked some shifts so he can focus on studying. Other students do not have that flexibility, he said.

Some people he has spoken with have debt of $60,000 to $80,000, with a few people topping $120,000, he said. Those people feel intense pressure to find lucrative jobs after they graduate — and education should be about more than finding a lucrative job, he said.

“I don’t think we should have debt,” Carvalho said. “Higher education should be free.”

Carvalho’s family comes from Brazil, where public universities are free for those who are admitted, he said.

The University of Sao Paulo, for example, has a low acceptance rate and students must score well on high-stakes entrance exams to be admitted. But the school is tuition-free, according to the school’s website.

Through advocacy, Carvalho believes the United States could have a similar system.

“I think it’s important for people to realize there is collective power in numbers,” he said, suggesting people contact their representatives in government about the issue or join a student debt rally or march. “It is worth working for low-income students. It is worth working for students in general for the health of the economy as a whole.”

Chancellor Subbaswamy said he disagrees with changing to a free education system — even though it was a system from which he benefited.

Subbaswamy came to the United States from India with $8 in his pocket and a master of science degree in physics from Delhi University. His home country heavily subsidized his education, and an anonymous donor paid for him to pursue a doctorate in physics at Indiana University.

“I had a good undergraduate education and that then led to my being able to pursue my dream of having a research career,” Subbaswamy said.

But even though the system of subsidized education benefited him, Subbaswamy said America’s approach to higher education is better.

In India, Subbaswamy had to pass a rigorous entrance exam to qualify for one of a very limited number of spots at the country’s public institutions. If he had done poorly on that test, he would not have been able to go to college at all.

“They don’t assume the American assumption that everyone deserves to go to college,” Subbaswamy said. “The American model is to empower everyone and help them cross any bridges they need to cross to make them college eligible. It is an ambitious social agenda.”

AGE 22: Deferring dreams

Abigail Hobart of Northampton graduated in May from Hampshire College in Amherst. She does not yet know what her career will be, but she does know she will have to pay back roughly $16,000 in student loans — money that in the short term, at least, looks like it will come from her two part-time jobs as a farmhand and restaurant hostess.

“We have six months of deferment that they give us; I have to start paying those off on Nov. 20,” she said, adding, “I will have monthly payments of $200.”

When she graduated, she said she had three potential plans — either stay in Northampton and look for work, move back to her parents’ house in Bellingham, Washington, and take a job there or — her top choice — join an activist group called the Beehive Collective in Machias, Maine.

Months later, she said she was taking a job at a coffee shop in Northampton. Moving up to Maine to pursue her political passions was not realistic if she was not able to find work to pay off her loans, she said.

“Low-level café work — that’s kind of all I’m setting my sights on now,” she said.

Hobart acknowledged she is one of the lucky ones — a grandmother’s inheritance allowed her a wider range of college choices and the chance to graduate with less debt than many of her peers.

The fact that she would have to pay off her loans was not something that she took seriously until she attended a one-hour session with financial advisers that Hampshire required for graduation, she said.

Learning to take such things seriously was a struggle for her, and something she only felt like she started to learn after arriving at college.

She expects loan payments will have a learning curve, as well.

“I try to remember to floss every day,” she said. “It’s hard to be good at being an adult.”

Legislative hopes

Presidential contenders, particularly on the Democratic side, are making student debt a national campaign issue.

In May, Vermont Sen. and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders proposed a “College for All Act,” making all public institutions of higher learning tuition-free by providing $47 billion per year of federal money to the states. Tuition at public colleges and universities amounts to $70 billion per year, of which the federal government would pay two-thirds and the states would pay the remainder, according to a summary of the act.

The plan would be paid for by a so-called “Robin Hood Tax” on Wall Street, according to Sanders’ Senate website. The tax would be a 0.5 percent fee on stock trades, a 0.1 percent fee on bonds and a .005 percent fee on derivatives.

“It has been estimated that this provision could raise hundreds of billions a year, which could be used not only to make tuition free at public colleges and universities in this country, it could also be used to create millions of jobs and rebuild the middle class of this country,” Sanders wrote in the act’s summary.

“Everyone in this country who studies hard should be able to go to college regardless of income,” his website said.

In August, Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton laid out a plan called “The New College Compact” to give grants to states that guarantee public university students can graduate without loans; provide income-based repayment plans for student borrowers; refinance current interest rates for recent graduates; and make community colleges free by spending $350 billion over 10 years.

“We need to make a quality education affordable and available to everyone willing to work for it — without saddling them with decades of debt,” she wrote in her announcement of the plan.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican presidential candidate, was a co-sponsor in 2014 with Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of the Dynamic Student Loan Repayment Act.

The act would consolidate federal loan plans into a single plan, alter repayment to an income-based repayment model and forgive certain amounts of debt after 20 or 30 years.

The act has not progressed beyond being introduced in the Senate, according to Congress’ website.

In Massachusetts, state legislators collected testimony on student debt in 2013 and several proposals to alleviate the problem in the state are in the works, according to state Sen. Eileen M. Donoghue, D-Lowell, vice chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Higher Education.

She listed efforts on several fronts, including:

∎ making financial literacy mandatory in all high school grades;

∎ expanding the state John and Abigail Adams Scholarship Program;

∎ offering further tax deductions for college saving programs;

∎ creating a digital open-source library of free textbooks; and

∎ an omnibus bill to strengthen and expand affordable higher education.

“I’m very optimistic that we’ll get something done,” she said. “I know there’s a great interest on the Joint Committee on Higher Education.”

UMass student Joel Spiegel took a dim view of national prospects for a legislative fix for student debt.

“I think that major action is only going to happen on a statewide level,” he said. “This is not a new issue, and it is getting worse as time goes on.”

Describing the debt levels students must take on as “unsustainable,” however, he said he does see more people paying attention to the issue in the future.

“It affects all races, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds,” he said. “This is not an issue people can ignore. We need to see education as a human right just as we see the rights to life, liberty and property.”

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@gazettenet.com.


 


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