Impacts of College Debt: Three Vignettes

Libby Buchmeier was 21 and married when she first enrolled in college classes.

She dropped out and has since enrolled in classes a few times. Her message to young people is: “Get your degree when you’re young.”

Now 36 and raising two young children, Buchmeier is working toward an accounting degree at Grand View University in Des Moines.

She decided to return to school to increase her salary, which would allow her husband to take a job that pays less but requires less travel. As she attends classes part-time, she’s paying $230 a month in interest on $60,000 in student loans from previous stints in college.

“It’s a lot harder to go back once you’re accustomed to a certain standard of living. You don’t want to say kids get in the way, but it definitely makes it a challenge doing what I’m doing now,” she said.

Buchmeier is not eligible for more federal loans because she’s a part-time student. With 50 credits to go before she earns her accounting degree , she may not be able to afford to continue classes next fall.

Unless she can find time to apply for a batch of scholarships or find an employer that will pay for her education — something that is not likely in this economy — she said she may have to drop out.

“I want to demonstrate to my kids the value of an education, especially since so many studies have linked how far kids go in school to how far their mother went,” she said. “I am 36, and the cost-benefit analysis is rapidly favoring going back to work full-time, which would then mean I have all this debt to repay and absolutely nothing to show for it.”

Andrew Finke: Summer jobs, GI Bill helped him graduate without debt
Andrew Finke graduated debt-free from the University of Northern Iowa with assistance from the GI Bill and savings from summer jobs.

Finke’s childhood interest in the military led him to sign up for the Iowa Army National Guard as a high school junior in 2000. After Sept. 11, he signed up for deployment but wasn’t selected. He enrolled at UNI instead.

Finke’s brother once said he wished he had graduated from college without debt, and Finke kept that in mind through the years.

The National Guard didn’t provide full reimbursement until his final year, so Finke worked on his summers off. He installed hardwood floors, worked on his grandfather’s farm, loaded turkeys and detasseled corn. When he tired of physical work, he took a job at Target.

Finke was deployed to Iraq for a year, just three college classes short of a degree in chemistry and marketing. He missed three semesters, and graduated in 2007.

“The National Guard provided me opportunity to challenge myself, allowed me to work with different kinds of people, and provided an all-expenses-paid trip to Baghdad. I would encourage anybody to pursue the same path,” he said.

Trent Robinson: Debt strains marriage, leaves little to spend
Trent Robinson studied for seven years at two universities to earn degrees in electrical and computer engineering.

His total student debt upon graduation from Iowa State University was $160,000. He has paid more than $60,000 toward the loans since graduating in 2007, but has paid off only $10,000 of the original amount he borrowed.

Robinson, 30, said it took so long to graduate because he earned two degrees, some of his classes didn’t transfer, and he spent a semester and a summer at an internship. All through college he said he didn’t understand the impact his student loans would have on his life.

“There’s a lot about student loans that I had no clue about. I had no clue about budgeting,” he said. “When my monthly payments were around $1,000 a month after graduation, that was a real eye-opener.”

Robinson said he sees no way out of the debt, and is seeking bankruptcy despite earning a decent salary with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
He said an indefinite pay freeze in place for three years has hampered his ability to pay off his loans.

Robinson is raising two young children with his wife, and said the debt has strained his marriage. Between his student loan payments, a $1,000 per month mortgage and food, his family has little money left over. They receive state aid for health insurance because he said he can’t afford to pay for deductibles or medications. He doesn’t budget for retirement or clothing and doesn’t pay for extras like cable.

“It’s caused a huge burden on our marriage. She looks at me and she thinks, ‘Why did I pick this life?’ ” he said. “That’s what it’s come to.”


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