Have degrees not debt
By Linda Borla Director, CCA District I-1, United Faculty-North Orange County CCD
When I started college in 1978, armed only with a part-time job, financial aid, and working class frugality, I was able to attend community college two years for free and then go to a university and earn my bachelor’s and masters’
degrees without acquiring insurmountable student loan debt.
Today, my college experience seems like a distant, dying American Dream to the thousands shouldering $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, according to the NEA, which launched its Degrees, Not Debt campaign August 22 to increase student aid, expand loan forgiveness, and allow student loan refinancing in an effort to stop this financial nightmare.
The starving student stereotype sadly remains a reality after graduation for many CCA members. Crippled by the staggering load of student loan debt, which currently averages $35,000 per person with some owing 10 times as much, both full-time and adjunct faculty struggle to make ends meet.
“Student loans almost risked me being able to refinance my house,” says Randa Wahbe, a fulltime English professor at Cypress College who earned her doctorate midcareer. “Luckily, it wasn’t a factor for an auto loan.”
Wahbe’s monthly payments totaled $2500 until she consolidated her loan—a move that made her ineligible for the public service loan forgiveness program. “If you are on top of it and do the right thing, you don’t get any of the benefits,” says Wahbe.
Still others have trouble jumping into the housing market at all due to onus of student debt. “I had to live the same level as I lived when I was in school, “says Nicole Faudree who graduated from Pepperdine Law School in 1997 with $65,000 in student loans. Fudree and a law school friend were forced to pool resources so together they could qualify for a home loan.
Learning to cope
“I have learned to cope with it; I am going to have it forever,” laments Faudree, who currently teaches full-time in the paralegal program at College of the Canyons.
Faculty with families are pained by their inability to save for their own children’s education. “I can’t send my kids to college because I’m still paying my loan,” worries Brandy Young, a tenured professor of psychology at Cypress College who saw her student loans grow to $100,000 by the time she finished her B.A. and M.A. at UCLA and Ph.D. at UCI in 2002.
While full-timers worry about maintaining a middle class lifestyle, debt-burdened contingent faculty face an ongoing struggle to meet basic needs: rent, transportation, and health care. Even with a full schedule as a freeway flyer, the average part-timer only grosses $30,000-$40,000 a year and lives on unemployment during summer and winter intersession, according to John Sullivan an adjunct English professor at San Bernardino College.
“We are losing teachers because they can’t afford to pay their student loans and living costs,” says Sullivan. “It’s virtually impossible for them to get to the point where they’re solvent again unless they leave the field. How demoralizing is that?”
Some adjuncts have been forced to move home with parents or in with roommates to make ends meet. Others like Krista Eliot, an adjunct anthropology professor, have taken extreme measures to deal with their money woes.
Eliot and her husband, both doctoral candidates with a combined debt mountain of $140,000, moved from San Diego to Tijuana. They fly the freeways every day from Mexico to their jobs at Mira Costa, Palomar, and Mesa College.
“The critical issue was the high rent and the insane cost of childcare,” says Eliot, who across the border saw her housing costs drop from $2000 to $700 and childcare from $800 to $80. “Given how unstable our income is, it’s a lot easier,” she says.
Because of their part-time work, many adjuncts don’t meet the 30-hour per week requirement for loan forgiveness programs. Until this year, they were not even allowed to add up the hours from multiple jobs, says Elliot.
Those who have found a way to cobble together an existence, never plan to retire. Returning for her doctorate later in her career left Dorothy Reina, a part-time history professor at Norco College, with a $130,000 student loan.
“I love what I do because I am going to have to do it until I drop dead at the podium,” says Reina.
I find it ironic that a college education—the means to a better life that freed me and thousands in my generation to move up the social ladder—today condemns my colleagues and students to a lifetime sentence of debt. Let’s rewrite a new ending to these stories. Take the Degrees, Not Debt pledge at www.NEA.org/degreesnotdebt.
CCA/CTA join Degrees not Debt campaign
Did you know...
• The average student owes $35,000, but some owe ten times as much.
• Existing student debt now exceeds $1.2 trillion.
• There are approximately 40 million people in the U.S. who have student debt.
• Student debt is higher than credit card debt in this country.
• More than 40 percent of 25-year-olds hold student debt.
The student debt crisis has prompted CCA and CTA to join the Degrees Not Debt campaign launched this fall by the National Education Association. NEA’s recommended solutions include: increasing need-based federal aid, like Pell Grants; refinancing loan interest rates; expanding loan forgiveness programs, especially those for people working in public service careers like education; and state-based reinvestment in higher education. NEA also proposes increased enrollment in Income Driven Repayment programs, which can have an immediate, tangible impact that can lower individuals’ current loan payments.
CTA is engaging members statewide through a number of events about college affordability and piggybacking on that to educate the public. The Degrees Not Debt campaign at www.cta.org/degreesnotdebt provides a great opportunity for CCA chapters to organize members. There you can find reports, presentations, sample letters to the editor and other resources.