Depending on your primary news sources, I’m either an “elitist” or one of the 429,000 Iowans burdened with a collective $13.3 billion in student loan debt who will have a portion of it forgiven by an executive order from President Joe Biden.
Biden announced Wednesday that up to $20,000 in federal student loan debt will be forgiven for Pell grant recipients—you must “display exceptional financial need” to receive one of those—and up to $10,000 for those of us who weren’t quite as hard up.
The social media outrage about this was something, especially considering a lot of the most vocal critics benefited from forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans in increments higher than what Biden’s forgiving and, in some cases, hundreds of thousands in federal farm subsidies.
But rather than rehash all of that, I’m going to talk about why I needed student loans and why it’s been so hard for me to pay off that debt.
I’m the product of a single mother. My late mother raised me, for the most part, by herself. I say for the most part because my grandparents and maternal aunts and uncles also played a big role in my upbringing. I also sort of have three fathers, which is something I’ve never written about before.
My first stepdad, who I grew up thinking was my biological dad, spent most of my childhood in and out of prison and battling various addictions.
My second stepdad, who my mom met at work during one of my first stepdad’s jail stints, already had three sons of his own. I also wasn’t exactly receptive to this guy who I thought was trying to replace my “dad” even though I rarely saw him outside of a visitation room. Also, don’t worry, my second stepdad and I are super cool now!
My final father figure is my biological father who I met during my senior year of high school. We are also super good and he’s the reason I went from being an “only child” for 17 years to having two little sisters who I love and cherish.
Obviously, my backstory is complicated, and trying to explain how I’m related to someone via one of those three men requires a flow chart.
So what does this have to do with student loans? Well, I’m getting there but I had to show you where I was coming from first.
Growing up, my mom usually had a full-time job, a part-time job, and side hustles including making and selling custom gift baskets. Still, for years we barely kept our heads above water, especially during her rare periods of unemployment.
There were times we had to fill the bathtub up with water before they cut it off because of a missed bill. Sometimes in the winter, we had to sleep in the same bed under numerous comforters because she couldn’t risk running up the gas bill since we didn’t have the money to pay.
When she didn’t have a running car, we walked to and from the grocery store a mile away from our duplex to get what we needed—this is probably why I’m still so dedicated to the “one trip or die mantra” of bringing in groceries. We would also walk to the payphone whenever our house phone was off.
Even with all of our financial hardships, not going to college was never an option for me and the value of an education was something my mom instilled in me. She was the only one of her five maternal and paternal siblings to graduate high school. She also earned a few college credits while raising me, working multiple jobs, and supporting an incarcerated spouse.
By the time I was ready to go to college, things were much better. She and my second stepdad bought a house together, he found a good job after their previous place of employment laid them both off, and my mom worked various full-time gigs and a part-time job at a department store.
Also, because I was/am a giant nerd, I was offered a scholarship that covered tuition for our local community college. I stayed at home and my dad (the biological one) bought my books for me during my first semester at Kansas City Kansas Community College (KCKCC).
By the time the second semester rolled around, I wrote for the school newspaper and worked a night shift job at an office supply warehouse; I still have the boxcutter scars and steel-toed boots to prove it.
When I transferred to the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC), I was college debt free because I stayed at home while at KCKCC and my scholarship covered tuition. I also paid for my books out of pocket after my first semester since I worked full time.
Then, shit got real.
UMKC wouldn’t accept all of my credits from KCKCC, so I was going to have to take a number of classes over, which also meant paying for those classes. I had also moved out and gotten my own place, so paying out-of-pocket for school and rent even with a full-time job wasn’t really feasible.
I took out a $2,000 federal student loan in fall 2008. I paid that loan off in May 2022 and I was able to for two reasons: I kept my autopay pay going during the federal pause on student loan repayment that was started under President Donald Trump and continued under Biden, and those payments went directly to my loan rather than strictly toward interest.
I paid off a second of my four loans in June because of the same situation. Altogether, I borrowed $9,250 and still owe $7,000. I didn’t start repaying my loans until 2016 while I was working at my second full-time journalism job because I simply didn’t have money to spare.
I made less money at my first journalism job than I did at the warehouse job I worked at from ages 19-26. This was also after I footed the bill for breaking the lease of my apartment in the Kansas City suburbs and paying for a move to Newton, Iowa.
In Newton, Dustin Turner, a friend and a former co-worker, had access to a relative’s Costco account. We’d do occasional Costco runs from Newton to West Des Moines and I remember my jaw dropping when I found out that the free sample people at Costco made more hourly than we did.
By the time I got my third journalism job in Sioux City, my cost of living was so much higher than it was in Sheldon—where my second and fourth journalism jobs were and where I first started repaying my loans after years of ignoring calls and emails from Nelnet—that I had to get a second job.
Somewhat ironically, I became a free sample person—retail merchandiser was the official title—at the Sioux City Sam’s Club, Costco’s chief rival. I also did some freelance writing assignments.
I quit the part-time gig after about 6 months but this memory remains a good motivator. pic.twitter.com/X49JeazCqM
— Ty Rushing (@Rushthewriter) July 15, 2020
I remember one terrible day when I had a freelance assignment due and had to work at both jobs. I got it done but it sucked.
I’m not writing this looking for sympathy—I’m doing fine these days and this is the internet and we are all monsters here—but to provide a face and voice to the student-loan debt crisis, which isn’t unique to me or my particular circumstances. Even the Obamas didn’t pay off their loans until just before they entered the White House.
There are millions of people like me who couldn’t afford to get an education without putting themselves into debt and, as odd as it sounds, I tried to put myself into a manageable debt situation.
I went to KCKCC instead of the University of Kansas (KU) because I couldn’t afford to go to my dream school. I transferred to UMKC because it made more financial sense and was an easier commute between home, my warehouse job, and campus, which were in three different counties across two states. To put it in mascot terms, it was cheaper to be a Kangaroo rather than a Jayhawk.
Biden’s announcement was a game-changer for a lot of people I know. My younger sister is going to be student loan debt free by 40, which is remarkable considering her undergraduate degree debt was “enough to buy a nice house,” according to my dad (the biological one). A friend who accumulated nearly $80,000 in loan debt during several college attempts before finding her calling as a nurse is going to be able to see a significant amount of that burden removed.
I can put my payments toward my wedding and maybe actually get a house after nearly 15 years of apartment living. Obviously, these are things I was going to have to do eventually, but having more financial flexibility to do so is beyond a relief.
So, yeah, I’m pretty happy about Biden’s executive decision, but I’m also just an elitist from Kansas City with three dads who couldn’t afford college and whose career experience as a journalist—working primarily in rural Iowa—only recently surpassed his career experience as a warehouse worker; a senior distribution specialist if you want to be technical.
by Ty Rushing
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