Commentary

I paid off my student debt. I’m elated that millions will have theirs forgiven.

September 2, 2022 5:45 am

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

I accumulated $15,000 in school related debt and paid it off in three years, and I am glad President Joe Biden has proposed forgiving some federally guaranteed student loans.

In 1992, 30 years ago, I started my job as an assistant professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU). I was poor in those days and arrived in Marshall with a negative net worth of around $13,000. My loans of $15,000 were offset by my books, my car, an apartment full of found furniture, and my wardrobe, such as it was, that may have added up to $2,000 in assets. I had no savings or retirement plan.

I was lucky to catch the tail end of the massive public investment in higher education. That meant that by living frugally and working 20 hours a week during the school year and 40 hours a week in the summer, I was able to earn my B.A. from Fullerton Community College and University of California-Los Angeles with no debt. Back then, in California, community college was free.

When I started graduate school at UCLA, fees where higher, and after my first year, I finally took on debt, two $5,000 federally guaranteed student loans at 8% interest. I eventually transferred to UC-Davis to complete my degree and was funded through the time I got my job. By funded, I mean I was paid exactly what it took to survive. After paying tuition and fees, our take home pay as teaching assistants was less than $900 a month, and we were only paid for nine months.

When I earned an offer to work at SMSU, I told the vice president who hired me that I needed moving expenses. He said Minnesota State did not pay moving expenses for faculty (they still don’t). I said I had no money to move and would need to go further into debt to take the job. He told me that I had better contact my banker.

Since I did not have a banker, I borrowed $2,500 from my parents and $2,500 from my best friend Pete. I was lucky that I had parents and a best friend who had the cash to lend me the money I needed, interest free. Not every student with debt can count on such a safety net.

I was lucky that I did not have a family or kids to take care of when I moved to Marshall. That allowed me to continue to live as I had as a graduate student so I could claw my way out of debt. I ate home cooked rice, beans and ramen noodles almost every day. I did not have a TV or cable. I did not travel or go to the movies. Basically, I lived like a monk, creating classes, grading assignments, finishing my dissertation, and paying off my loans. I paid off my parents and Pete in one year and then turned to my student loans. Within three years I was out of debt.

Not everyone can focus on getting out of debt, especially if they have families to take care of.

I remember that first month after I paid off my loans, I went to the Marshall Bike Shop and bought a new Trek. The cost was the same as my student loan payment had been. As I was riding home, I said to myself, “I can buy a bike a month for the rest of my life.” I’ll never forget that feeling of liberation.

Of course, I did not buy a bike a month for the rest of my life. Getting out of debt allowed me to start a supplemental retirement account and increase my charitable contributions to the SMSU scholarship fund. I started paying it forward.

I am elated that millions of people will not have to pay off some of their student loan debt.

Now I hope we move in the direction of free public higher education for two and four year degrees. It’s the right thing to do. Education is a public good.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jeff Kolnick
Jeff Kolnick

Jeff Kolnick teaches history at Southwest Minnesota State University. He is a founder of the Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy and he served his faculty union as a negotiator and local president.

MORE FROM AUTHOR