“It’s either take care of my daughter…or pay student loans.” – Terri’s Student Loan Story
As a child, Terri Crothers dreamed of becoming a photojournalist, but her parents – a parts buyer for a large department store and a distribution/receiving specialist for a vehicle manufacturer – were worried about her financial prospects. “My folks believed I couldn’t make any money doing that and encouraged me to try something else,” she says. So when Terri entered a junior college directly out of high school, she took a course in chemistry, thinking she might go into the medical field and then switched to business. Neither clicked, and after a year, Terri left school and worked for several years at jobs she describes as “good paying but intellectually disabling.”
In 1996, at age 32, Terri decided to go back to school full time, this time focusing on her dreams of a creative career. To fund her education, Terri used her savings, worked part-time, and took out about $25,000 in student loans, and in 1999, she graduated from Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, OH, with a BFA in Arts Education and a K-12 teaching certificate. Soon after, she was hired in a teaching position, and while working, she earned her M.Ed. at the University of Rio Grande in Rio Grande, OH.
Her Masters Degree cost Terri an additional $13,000, but she already had a job in her field and she wasn’t particularly worried. Still, though her employer provided tuition reimbursement, it was only $250 per year, which didn’t even pay for an hour of her graduate education. “Trying to get my feet on the ground and become established, I used my forbearance and deferment time to allow me time to increase my salary,” she says. It was a good plan, and one that many other students have followed, but, unfortunately, Terri ran into a glitch.
In June of 2007, Terri’s position as the after-school coordinator for a 21st century learning center at the high school where she taught was eliminated because of budget cuts. Terri was given no advanced notice of the cut, and though she still had her regular teaching position, the cut meant she was bringing in $800 a month less. On top of this, she had just replaced her 12-year old car, which had been having mechanical programs. In order to make her car payments on her lower salary, she had to quit paying on her student loans.
But the new car wasn’t Terri’s only expense. She is also a single mother, and both she and her daughter have been afflicted with medical problems that have led to hospitalizations, follow-up visits, and prescriptions. In April of 2008, she tells me, she and her daughter “were involved in a car accident while stopped at an intersection waiting to make a left turn.” Her daughter was, fortunately, only bruised, but Terri got a herniated disc in her back, which has required continuous treatments such as physical therapy, pain management injections, and prescription medications. Terry is still in treatment for the injury to her back, and she experiences pain in her lower back, hip, left leg and left foot.
Terri is now an art teacher for 7th and 9-12th graders at her local high school. “I absolutely love what I do and can’t imagine doing anything else,” she says. After ten years of teaching, she makes a decent salary, about $50,000 a year, but the various setbacks in her life and the current economic downturn have left her struggling. “Money has become very tight,” she says, “and there just isn’t enough to go around. It’s either take care of my daughter responsibly, pay for my home and car and other items, with very little left over, or pay student loans.”
Terri does pay on her student loans whenever she can, but she can’t afford the $335 a month payments so the interest is slowly growing. Her student loan company has suggested that she declare bankruptcy to clear her other debts so that she will have the money to pay them, but, understandably, she doesn’t want to do this. “My home is my security,” she says. “and someday when my daughter goes to college, I hope to take out a second mortgage on it in order to put her through college. I cannot and will not doom her to a life of poverty because of my mistakes.” She has considered leaving the country to escape her loans, but she doesn’t want to take her daughter away from her extended family.
Terri originally took out about $38,000 in student loans. She now owes over $53,000, and the debt is growing every day. She is current on all of her other debts, including her mortgage, a credit card and utilities. She wishes she had never taken out the student loans. “Had I had a ‘crystal ball’ and been able to see the future I never would have taken out the loans,” she says. “I would have gone back to work full-time and school part-time.”
Like many people struggling with student loan debt, Terri is frightened and full of regret. “I am very ashamed that I allowed myself to get in this situation,” Terri tells me. “Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine it would happen to me.