Jeff McGeorge graduated college at probably the worst time in modern American history.
It was 2011, and the country was still shaking off the worst of the Great Recession. McGeorge was just leaving Grand Valley State University, where he’d studied for a career in journalism. He’d arrived later than most, starting on his degree at around age 30. And besides taking out loans, he’d worked his way through school as a boat-builder and a waiter.
When he got out of school, he walked right into a foundering economy.
“When I graduated from college, the job market was just terrible,” he said. “I mean, you couldn’t get anything. And so I ended up going back. Building boats for, I think it was like 13 bucks an hour wage.”
McGeorge turned it into a career. A decade later, he’s a boat salesman in western Michigan, happily married with two kids. He’s still enthusiastic about college, and he says he hopes to send his kids one day. But he hopes they’ll do it without the high cost, and he said the tens of thousands in loans he took out have put his family on a financial treadmill.
Add on his wife’s student debt, and McGeorge said he expects the family to be paying off loans for the rest of his life. Right now, he said, it’s at more than $500 a month. His only hope for moving past them is for some sort of cutoff incentive to snap into place — forgiveness based on his wife’s work at a nonprofit, or maybe for decades of timely payment.
“Only in the past, I would say, three or four years have I been comfortable — where I’m not panicking about paying bills, where it’s not a month-to-month wage scramble,” he said.
McGeorge is one of countless Michiganders who did what they had to do — taking out tens of thousands of dollars in loans — to chase the promise of a good career and a better life. And like McGeorge, many of them have found the reward a mixed blessing. College is a formative experience, a chance to grow, explore and become an adult. But the cost is only getting higher.
Take Michigan State University, for example. Tuition has jumped from about $115 per credit hour in 1992 to more than $480 today for students with part-time course loads. Even after accounting for inflation, that cost has more than doubled.
But that’s on par with colleges around the country. Federal data shows that the average annual all-in cost of college — across public and private institutions — has jumped from an inflation-adjusted $8,150 in the mid-1980s to about $18,000 during the 2017-18 school year.
That helps throw into sharp relief just how hard it is at some places to work through college. Want to pay off tuition as you graduate? Better balance class against making half the starting salary of a Michigan teacher.
One of the problems is cost-cutting. In Michigan especially, declining state funding is forcing universities to make up costs elsewhere. A study from The Century Foundation found that, in the early 2000s, the state gave more to public institutions per student than the students themselves did. But that’s since been flipped on its head: in the 2017-18 year, the study found, tuition per student was about $14,288. State appropriations per student were only about $4,700.
“In 1979, our state appropriation from the Michigan Legislature accounted for nearly 75% of MSU’s general fund budget,” an MSU spokesperson said in an email. “Today it accounts for less than 25%.”
The average amount of debt for Michigan’s college class of 2019 is more than $30,000.*
Writing in the Atlantic, Amanda Ripley points out that American colleges — with comparatively posh dorms, sumptuous meal plans and the Big House — also spend lavishly on the luxuries of campus living. But even after removing those costs, the American education system is on average more expensive than nearly anywhere else in the world.
The college system is beholden to a vicious economic cycle, Ripley writes. Pinched by falling aid, many public institutions are scrambling to attract wealthy out-of-state or international students, who pay higher prices. And as both public and private colleges one-up each other — hiring fundraising staff or snagging star professors — the cost of an education rises.
Students, so far, are still willing to pick up the tab. Michigan’s college class of 2019 graduated with an average of more than $30,000 in debt, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. That’s the 17th-highest rate in the country.
But how could they not? Americans with bachelor’s degrees still earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more than high school graduates, on average, over a lifetime.
This is increasingly a source of keen pressure that students feel while they’re still on campus. Jocelyn Nuñez-Colon, an incoming Calvin University junior and aspiring journalist, rattles off a long list of campus activities she’s added to her résumé: the student newspaper, the campus art magazine and more. Neither of her parents have a bachelor’s degree, and she said she feels a lot of pressure to succeed. Students know they need to do well in school, she said, if they want to escape the debt burdens that are waiting after graduation.
“Am I going to be able to pay my loans with journalism?” She wondered in an interview. “Am I going to be able to have my dream job and live a decently happy life? Because debt is going to be floating over me for a long time. And that’s something I’ve accepted, as scary as it is.”
That financial pinch causes problems far beyond the college quad. The Michigan Education Association cosponsored a 2020 report that noted the difficulty of keeping young teachers in the profession. One concern, the report noted, is that starting salaries aren’t keeping up with the cost of a degree.
This is familiar territory for Matthew Evans, who teaches fourth through sixth grade at Grand Rapids Montessori Public School. It’s been a long road to the classroom for him — bouncing across three colleges on his way to his bachelor’s degree before earning a master’s degree in Oregon. He estimates he has about $130,000 in student debt.
“I don’t see how they can expect to inspire more people to join the (teaching) profession without increasing salaries. I can’t afford so many things because of how low my salary is,” he said. “I’m blessed right now to be able to just live in my mom’s house while she is living with my family in Brazil.”
Right now, he said, he’s paying about $250 a month on his student loans — an income-based payment plan against the roughly $2,400 in monthly take-home pay. It’s hard to find a place to live in Grand Rapids on that kind of money.
“No one in my family nor anyone at school ever sat down with me and talked to me about, well, maybe you should go to community college,” he said, or even trade school. “It’s just kind of like, everyone was telling me, the thing to do is go to a university and get your master’s.”
But this is not just an issue for journalists, or teachers, or other fields that won’t make students comfortably wealthy. Abby Gizinski is a graduate of Calvin University and attended Michigan State University’s medical school in Grand Rapids. She’s now in the first year of a family medicine residency near Midland. She estimates she’ll have more than $200,000 in debt when she finally becomes a doctor.
Gizinski knows she’ll end up all right. After all, she’s a doctor. But not even that will shield her and her husband from building the earliest years of their life around student loans — planning a home and planning a family around student debt. She said her goal is to pay off that amount within 10 years of starting her first physician job.
“The primary financial obligation for the next 10 years is already pretty overwhelming,” she said. “It’s even more overwhelming to think about adding
kids to that.”
‘Get in, get out’
Eric Lundquist is a Sterling Heights attorney who specializes in student loan debt. To hear him tell it, the job is part financial adviser, part defense attorney and vaguely part therapist — helping clients exorcise the terrible burdens they bring into his office.
“Under Michigan law, you are responsible just as much as your son or daughter is — or whoever you’re co-signing the loan for — for paying it back,” he said. “A lot of people get tripped up. And I keep a box of Kleenex in my office for these people, because it’s very emotional and sometimes it splits a family apart. You know, ‘My son told me he would take care of this, and now they’re suing me.’”
Lundquist is full of stories like these. He has plenty of advice, all bound up in a pamphlet he gives out to clients. One part warns against getting over-educated, trapped outside the job market by an over-credentialed résumé.
“Do everything you can to graduate in four years,” one section reads. “… Higher education is basically one big money sucking train that you want to get off as soon as possible to start making your own money.”
The sum of the advice is simple: college is an investment.
“My dad told me a long time ago that by the time I was finished with my schooling, I needed to have a skill that I could make a living on,” Lundquist writes. “He was absolutely right.”
Lundquist’s get-in, get-out philosophy doesn’t quite jibe with the traditional view of college as a place for exploration and discovery. But it reflects a difficult reality for a lot of students: taking their time — or even picking a low-income major — can be a costly mistake.
“I also think you’ve got to maximize your free money — your scholarships, your grants, you know. They’re out there,” Lundquist added.
They are indeed. And Michelle Rhodes, GVSU’s associate vice president for financial aid, knows all about them. She said a big part of her mission is helping students be financially literate. A big part of that is knowing their opportunities — like a forthcoming “Grand Valley Pledge” program, which will pay full tuition for local students with both a family income and family assets below $50,000.
But another part of it is simply helping students know what their responsibilities are, too.
“We want students to understand how to budget,” Rhodes said. “We want students to understand what loans are, and what equity is and what credit is.”
Financial aid programs have snagged headlines throughout COVID-19. It’s helped that federal student loans have been functionally put on hold, with payments suspended and interest rates temporarily set to 0%. But that pause will expire in the fall.
The pandemic also has seen a smattering of government programs to help students tackle debt. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration announced the “Futures for Frontliners” program in April of last year, which aimed to help essential workers — hospital staff, grocery workers and the like — get a tuition-free education. That was followed up by “Michigan Reconnect,” a tuition coverage program aimed at Michiganders 25 and older.
But the problem with these solutions, as helpful as they might be, is that they come to feel like the proverbial band-aid on a bullet wound — still leaving countless students’ educations expensive. And they do nothing to help students who are already bearing the burden of federal student loans, which are estimated nationwide at roughly $1.6 trillion in federal student debt — an incomprehensibly big number, perhaps easier to appreciate as roughly $5,000 for every American man, woman and child.
“We’ve noticed shifts in the questions and interests of incoming students. Questions around affordability and career preparation are clearly on the minds of students and their parents,” Lauren Jensen, vice president for enrollment strategy at Calvin University, said in an emailed statement. “We get it — these students have grown up in a recession and now a pandemic. They want to make sure the education they receive equips them for an uncertain and ever-changing world.”
Forgiving that debt would cost more than the federal government has spent on food stamps for two decades, according to a recent Brookings Institution analysis. Partial forgiveness would cost less but is still eye-watering. At $50,000 per borrower, the price tag is about $1 trillion; at, $10,000 per borrower, it’s $373 billion.
These solutions are getting a louder hearing nowadays. There is wide speculation that Washington could forgive swaths of federal student debt, with leading members of Congress, like Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., calling for as much as $50,000 in forgiven federal debt. President Joe Biden has balked at such a high number, and even at using the power of his office to forgive it, though — calling on Congress to step in and erase $10,000 per borrower.
But no easy solutions appear to be coming soon. And McGeorge, the GVSU graduate, points out that he really isn’t asking for one, anyway. He doesn’t want to shirk responsibilities, he said; but he does want a fair shake on paying things back, one where his family isn’t saddled with a lifetime of payments to start a career.
“I can understand the personal responsibility argument. I understand that,” he said. “(But) it’s better for the economy if I’m spending that money instead of giving it to a bank. It’s better for this country and for everyone to have an educated public. And people who don’t necessarily have the family that’s going to pay for their school — it should be a reasonable, easily attainable thing for a poor kid to go to school. Just as much as a rich kid.”
This story can be found in the July/August 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here.
*Data from the Institute for College Access and Success