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Opinion

Op-Ed: Parents, too, could use a break on student loan debt

University of Oregon graduation
University of Oregon graduates make their way through campus preceding graduation ceremonies in Eugene, Ore., in 2013.
(Brian Davies / The Register-Guard / Associated Press)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been fighting the good fight for student loan debt reform. As she put it recently: “Millions of young people are just stuck. They can’t buy homes, they can’t buy cars … all because they are struggling under the weight of student loan debt.”

I hope she gets a reform bill through Congress. But I also hope that she and others who care about education debt relief will expand their sights on loan reform to another group of people who can’t buy homes or new cars because of college loan debt: parents.

My husband, Kiffen, an elementary school teacher, and I have three children, spread out in age. The two older ones went through public elementary, middle and high schools, and our youngest, now a high school sophomore, is following in their path. But we wanted them all to have the option of attending four-year colleges of their choosing.

Our son went to UC Santa Barbara, our daughter to Sarah Lawrence. They both got some aid and they worked to help pay for their educations, but we financed a total of about $120,000 of their education with Parent PLUS loans. I’m not asking for absolution from that debt, but every time I make another pot of chicken soup and wonder how far I can make it stretch, I think about what lower interest rates would mean for us.

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The master promissory notes we signed for our kids through the Department of Education Direct Loan Program made us responsible for 80% of the amount borrowed, while our children are each responsible for 20%. The Parent PLUS loans we were given came with an average interest rate of about 8% annually. The kids’ interest rate was 3%. All of the loans were dispersed through the Department of Education and are managed by Sallie Mae.

We have consolidated those loans into one automatic payment of $954.42 a month. Barring a miracle, Kiffen and I will make our last installment when we are nearing 75. By that time, with interest, we will have actually paid about $300,000 for our $120,000 in loans.

We qualified for all this borrowing because we have good credit and pay our bills on time. But continuing to do that with the added education debt has required some sacrifices.

In 2009, facing the prospect of having a second kid in college, I accepted the only tenure-track job I could find, which happened to be at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. But we couldn’t afford for Kiffen to give up his tenured job in the Los Angeles Unified School District and the retirement benefits he is slowly building. I love my job, and Kiffen loves his, but we hate living apart so much of the year.

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Our youngest daughter, now 15, attends the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, a public school. She adores school and makes excellent grades, and although we try not to pressure this sweet kid, she understands that to go to college, she will need to get close to a full ride. As her big sister says, “OK, no pressure there!” But we simply can’t go any deeper into debt.

After Kiffen and I graduated from college, I paid about $65 a month for 10 years on my loans, and he paid about $160. Our parents didn’t go into debt putting us through college, and the debt we took on was manageable. But education costs have skyrocketed, and middle-class families like ours are particularly hard-hit.

For years now we’ve done everything we can to maximize our income. Kiffen has taken every possible course designed to move him to the top of the teacher salary scale. And in 2010, I took a second job teaching at Antioch University, which is a low-residency MFA program in Los Angeles.

But it still feels like we’re chipping away at a mountain. We’ve paid off one car now. And all three kids’ braces are long paid off. We’ve never been able to afford to buy a home, though. And last year, we were evicted from the Silver Lake home we had rented for 15 years after it was sold to a flipper, who now has it on the market for $1.3 million. Rent on our two homes, in Birmingham and Echo Park, comes to more than $3,000 a month.

Kiffen likes to point out that we are rich in love and friends and family, and this is true. But we are also rich in stress.

When Warren says that “exploding student loan debt is crushing young people and dragging down our economy,” that’s true.

But it’s crushing middle-aged people too, and I’m hoping she’ll spare a thought for us as well. In the meantime, there has been one upside: I’ve developed some amazing chicken soup variations.

Kerry Madden is on the creative writing faculty at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and the author, most recently, of “Nothing Fancy About Kathryn & Charlie,” illustrated by her daughter Lucy.

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