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Originally published June 15, 2014 at 8:03 PM | Page modified June 16, 2014 at 12:31 PM

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Readers tell how student-loan debt weighs them down

We recently asked readers to tell us how they made it through college, and how student-loan debt was affecting their lives. Here are some of their responses:


Raul Tello

Age 35, 2007 graduate, $180,000 in student loans

“I was always told education would lead to success”

The amount of debt I assumed in obtaining undergrad and doctorate schooling has impeded my ability to purchase a home or an existing (chiropractic) practice.

After taxes and student loan payments, my spendable income goes to household expenses and transportation (I own a very modest Honda).

I am a single parent who shares custody of one child. I choose to live near her mother so that I can be a more involved parent and cause less stress to my daughter when having to travel between households.

Living in Seattle proper has been the most expensive luxury I have afforded myself.

At the moment I make enough to sustain a respectable household within the city. In order to pay back student loans, I have become a self-taught software developer and have started Orca Notes, an electronic health care records startup that services the local chiropractic community. It has taken me over five years to develop a product for market, learning software development in the evenings and on moments away from a full-time job, but I hope the effort will produce results.

My idea of what my financial life would be like after so many years of schooling was quite different from what reality has turned out to be. I am a Colombian immigrant who worked very hard from a very early age to obtain the education, which I was always told would lead to success and financial stability.

Regretfully, the story many youngsters are being sold about the “investment” of money, effort and time into education is not quite what their reality will be.

There are many working in medicine, like myself, who are warning young adults about the cost of education and are delivering a warning about pursuing a career that may very well saddle them with a heavy financial burden for the next 30 years of their life.


LINDSEY WASSON / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Kezia Willingham earned a master's degree in social work — and $24,000 in student loans. Now she worries about college expenses for her children, Zinnia Willingham, 17, and Justin Fernandez-Willingham, 5.

Kezia Willingham

2005 graduate, $24,000 in student loans

“I am trying to take the long view ...”

The student loan debt, in addition to my mortgage, makes it very hard to make ends meet as a single mother, even though I work full time in a professional position that requires a master’s degree (earned at University of Washington).

Right now I can’t even get ahold of a human at my student loan servicer to discuss repayment options.

I hate to admit this, but even though I am highly educated and work full time (health coordinator for Head Start in Seattle), I struggle to make ends meet. Sometimes I feel like my life was easier when I was on Section 8 and food stamps. But I am trying to take the long view and believe that one day I won’t struggle to meet basic needs.

When I was in college, I was a young, single mom. I used grants, loans, work study, and public assistance to make ends meet. And I lived very simply.


Rebecca House

Age 42, 2010 graduate, $56,000 in student loans

“ ... Grants were not enough to cover tuition ...”

While the amount of debt I have is not as large as many people’s, it impacts my life in profound ways. One of the most frustrating is my medical needs. I have chosen not to have medical procedures, dental work and even eyeglasses because I cannot afford the out-of-pocket costs. This jeopardizes my health, but what are my other choices? I have a mortgage and a family to support ... you have to make cuts somewhere. I now work for a nonprofit credit counseling agency.

I worked through college and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and administrative studies with a minor in business administration. And I also qualified for scholarships/grants through my university (WSU). Obviously, financial aid Pell grants were not enough to cover tuition, books and miscellaneous expenses. I was supporting a family of seven the entire time I attended school. We didn’t receive any other kind of aid.


Touray Kungkagam

Age 35, graduated 2006, $140,000 in student loans

“I tried to live as cheap as possible ...”

Since I left law school in 2006, debt has impacted my ability to save money.

Money I would normally spend buying a new car, a new home, or other amenities is instead spent on paying down my loans. I’m not sure how this economy can move forward with so many young adults living with student loan debt. Even those with so-called professional jobs are being held back in this economy. It is very frustrating.

In college I lived at home during my undergraduate education. During law school I took out both private and public loans. I tried to live as cheap as possible knowing that one day I would have to pay those loans back.


Ryan DeFant

Age 39, 1997 graduate, $43,000 in student loans

“We struggle to make ends meet ...”

My wife and I both graduated college in 1997. She returned for a 2-year dental program and I returned to get my master’s degree. She is a dental hygienist of 5 years and I’m an elementary teacher of 12 years.

We live month to month. We bought a fixer-upper house that takes most of the money we do have to fix and upgrade. We don’t travel. We drive an old car on its last legs. We struggle to make ends meet while friends who didn’t go on to college are buying brand new houses, brand new vehicles, and travel the world. We keep waiting for when our loans will be gone and we finally get to enjoy this dream life of college graduates we were told about.

We both went to college with little to no support from family. Student loans were easy at the time and made the idea of going to college possible. College life was basic with student loans as far as food cost and money to spend. I wonder what I would’ve done after high school if I knew what I know now.


Kallie Ferguson

Age 26, 2012 graduate, $119,000 in student loans

“I was lulled into a false security by inflated job statistics and the fact that everyone else accepted it as normal”

I went to Seattle University School of Law. Tuition has soared to more than $40,000 a year and the jobs are scarce. My loans have ballooned to $140,000 (with interest) since graduating and I have little means to keep it down. I was lulled into a false security by inflated job statistics and the fact that everyone else accepted it as normal.

It was extraordinarily easy to get any amount of loans and there was very little information to help understand the loan process. I had enough money saved before law school to cover a lot of my living expenses, if not tuition. I rented cheap, sketchy rooms in houses with lots of other people. The basement bathroom I shared with two men had a curtain and no door, but I only had to pay $350. I went to every meeting with free food so that I could eat that day, which meant that pizza was a cornerstone of my diet. The rest of my expenses during school were covered by loans. Without them, I could never have gotten my degree. I worked, but mostly for unpaid internships. I contributed over 1,000 hours of volunteer work during those three years in law school.

My career has very little stability at the moment and I make the most of it, but the stark truth is that I spent a lot of time living in poverty, accumulating debt, and volunteering for unpaid internships trying to get the experience needed to succeed in my occupation. As someone without family support, it’s been two years since I graduated and I jump between temporary document review jobs and being uninsured. I love the law and I have loved it since I was a child, but I regret deciding to suck it up and take on the financial burdens of a law degree, figuring it would work itself out somehow. If I had known everything I do now, I may still have pursued a law degree, but I would have tried to lessen the financial impact by working full time and going to school part time.

I would urge people to assess the choice we are putting before our students and the ultimate price that our generation has to pay for education. Do we want to force our nation’s youth to choose between a lifetime of debt and education? Do we want the poor to be denied access to education? Will people stop seeking education because the cost is simply too high? I chose to attend law school and that choice was mine. But the cost I paid was astronomical and I fear that such price tags will prove unsustainable and harmful for all of us in the future.


David Stanton

Age 24, 2012 graduate, $24,000 in student loans

“I did not pay nearly enough attention to how much debt I was getting myself into ...”

My loan payments of about $285 a month have hampered my ability to save enough money to move out of my in-laws’ even as my wife and I both work full-time jobs. I work as an administrative assistant at a small construction company.

I did not pay nearly enough attention to how much debt I was getting myself into. Having a child after my freshman year made me eligible for state and federal grants and more subsidized loans, as well as food stamps, all of which helped tremendously with “balancing” my family’s budget.

I attended Central Washington University and earned a bachelor’s in law and justice and a minor in economics.



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