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.

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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.