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Local stories of student debt

Mississippi State University. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississippi Today

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A newsletter about role of higher education in society — plus Open Campus developments. By Sara Hebel and Scott Smallwood

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‘My payments were eating into my grocery bill’

By this time this week you’ve probably had your fill of student-loan takes. The critiques from the right, and from the left, of President Biden’s announcement that he would cancel up to $10,000 in federal student loan debt for borrowers who earn less than $125,000 per year — and up to $20,000 for borrowers who received Pell Grants.

Our local reporters have been crunching numbers and talking with analysts, too. But they’ve also been talking with people on the ground about their student debt, reflecting the mix of relief, disappointment, and lingering stress they’re feeling.

Here’s some of what they heard:

A dent in a bigger problem

In Florida, St. Petersburg software developer Amanda Leaders wanted to be excited about the announcement, she told Ian Hodgson of the Tampa Bay Times.

But the one-time loan forgiveness doesn’t address the high interest rate that student loans carry, which Leaders, who received a Pell Grant in college, sees as the root cause of her debt worries.

Despite making regular payments on her loans, her total debt has increased by 60 percent in the past 16 years.

“My payments were eating into my grocery bill, they were all I could really afford,” Leaders said. But those minimum payments only covered interest without paying down the principal on her nearly $42,000 in student loans.

“This is going to help me, don’t get me wrong,” she said. “But I’m worried about what happens when I suddenly go back to paying many hundreds of dollars a month.”

A sense of control

At one point Felipe Vieyra, who graduated from the University of Denver in 2012 with over $60,000 in student loan debt, lived out of a storage room for $200 a month because he couldn’t afford other rent.

When Jason Gonzales of Chalkbeat Colorado talked with him shortly after Biden’s announcement this week, he’d already texted friends about his excitement.

The 32-year-old said the $10,000 the government will forgive should bring down his student loan debt to $20,000. He has spent years chipping away at the debt on his own. 

“This gives me more control,” he said.

A temporary Band-Aid

One specific group Biden’s plan will help is Mississippi teachers, Toren Ballard, the director of K-12 policy education with Mississippi First, a policy nonprofit, told Molly Minta of Mississippi Today.

Student debt is a significant factor in Mississippi’s teacher shortage, he said. In order to become a teacher, students typically have to take on loans to pay for college tuition — only to make meager salaries that often do not cover the monthly payments. 

Teachers with student debt are more likely to leave their positions within a year than teachers without debt, according to a survey that Ballard conducted in late 2021. For teachers with student debt, 58 percent reported being likely to leave the classroom within a year, Ballard found, compared with 49 percent of teachers without debt. 

Student debt also causes Black teachers in Mississippi to leave the profession at significantly higher rates than white teachers, Ballard found, which contributes to larger racial inequities in the state’s public schools.

“The attrition gap between Black and white teachers is being driven solely by a disproportionate debt load that Black teachers have,” Ballard told Molly. 

The debt relief will help, but Ballard said the state needs to look at more long-term solutions to the high tuition rates that lead teachers to take on unaffordable student debt: “This is just a temporary Band-Aid for a really wide-reaching problem.”

—Sara Hebel

Read more:

Our new El Paso reporter

Welcome to Daniel Perez, our new higher education reporter in the border region of El Paso, Texas. He works for our partner El Paso Matters. Daniel’s a Los Angeles native and graduate of California State University, Los Angeles. He’s previously reported for the El Paso Times and most recently worked in the marketing and communications department for the University of Texas at El Paso.

His interest in higher education was fueled by his work at UTEP, he says, where he got a close-up view of the transformative power of higher education.

“I witnessed how students from families with modest incomes could change their lives and enhance their communities,” he says. “The world benefits from residents who can think critically and that starts with local communities. An educated population means economic development and enhanced quality-of-life, which are important to the Paso del Norte region as it continues to grow.”

+ Read Daniel’s first story, about record freshmen enrollment at UTEP. And send him your story ideas.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

Susanville has three prisons, although its largest, California Correctional Center, is slated to close. Photo: Nick Fouriezos

From Mile Markers: How community colleges are playing big roles in changing times.

Susanville, California, Nick Fouriezos writes, is a former mining town, former farming town, former timber town — and soon it will become a former prison town, too. Lassen Community College has been tasked for nearly a century with helping figure out what comes after all of those formers, Nick says. Only, there are no easy answers for a community in need of constant reinvention. 

+ Subscribe to Nick’s newsletter about the role of college in rural America.

From College Inside: ‘Leave your culture and assumptions at the door.’ As prison-based education programs slowly return, many newly inspired educators are unknowingly about to walk into a foreign land. Two incarcerated students have written a guide.

“You’ve undoubtedly come intending to do some good,” they write. “Yet that requires understanding something of the place you are in and the people you are with.”

+ Subscribe to Charlotte West’s newsletter about the future of higher ed in prisons.

From The Intersection: When a college asks you to apply. College admissions is often framed around scarcity. What if colleges focused on a process that emphasized opportunity instead?

+ Sign up for Naomi Harris’s newsletter about race and equity in higher ed.

From The Job: Could one-year apprenticeships become a thing in tech? The hot labor market drove a 41 percent increase last year in registered apprenticeship programs in tech fields.

+ Sign up for Paul Fain’s newsletter about the connection between education and the workforce.

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