Business news from the Fredericksburg region.
Graduates have degrees and debt
BY Liana Bayne
Mary Smith’s four sons hope to have bright careers in engineering, sciences and criminal justice.
She hopes their student loans don’t get in the way.
On July 6, after months of debate in Congress, President Barack Obama signed a bill, HR 4348, that froze the current federal student loan interest rate for the next year at 3.4 percent.
But students like the Smith brothers still struggle with loans, especially when they feel college is a necessity, not an option. The Smiths’ story is just one of many across the country that illustrate the effect loans can have on college students and recent grads.
Smith’s sons—Douglas, who graduated from the University of Dayton in 2004 with a mechanical engineering degree; Adam, who graduated from Virginia Wesleyan College in 2011 with a biology degree; Geoffrey, who hopes to graduate from Dayton in 2014 with a civil engineering degree; and Philip, who hopes to graduate from Virginia Wesleyan in 2016 with degrees in accounting and criminal justice—have all depended on federal and private loans to attend college.
Mary Smith, now a technology resource teacher for Fredericksburg city schools, said she thinks her choice to be a stay-at-home mom for 11 years while her sons were young skewed their applications for federal student aid.
“It doesn’t look at history,” Smith said of the application. While her family now has two incomes and is not generally in debt, they lived on only one income and don’t have much saved.
Smith’s two older sons got some “OK financial aid” and a Virginia Tuition Assistance Grant, but her younger sons haven’t been so lucky. They had to take out more loans to cover tuition than their older brothers did.
“There’s not a lot of money to help middle-income people,” Smith said.
Smith’s sons all took loans in their names, with their parents as co-signers to give them lower interest rates.
The problem with co-signing, she said, is that “loans don’t go away.”
“If, God forbid, anything should happen to one of them, we’re responsible for paying those loans,” Smith said.
The most recent grad in the family, Adam, is having the hardest time right now, his mom said. He lives in Richmond and is working at a job that pays about $35,000 per year.
“It’s tight,” she said. “He’s always looking at options for more income.”
One way to get more income is to go back to school for a master’s degree, but that would entail taking out more loans.
“It’s a vicious circle,” Smith said.
Some students choose to try to escape the burden of student loans by attending a community college such as Germanna.
Michael Farris, a financial aid coordinator for Germanna, said students there do take loans, but they’re taking fewer loans than their four-year-college counterparts.
“We are concerned about the amount of debt students carry,” Farris said.
He said Germanna tries to keep costs as low as possible.
“For families concerned about cost, we’re a more attractive option. And we’re just as committed as any four-year school I’ve been a part of.”
Students like the Kilgore triplets—Corey, Courtney and Chris, all age 20—chose to try to minimize student loans by attending community college at Germanna.
“We were worried about college,” Corey Kilgore said.
The triplets also have an older brother and an older sister who attended traditional four-year universities, though they didn’t graduate.
The Kilgores said they wanted to get their core classes out of the way and have the guaranteed ability to transfer to a Virginia university.
All three just graduated with associate degrees in general studies from Germanna in May.
Chris is getting married and will take some time off before going back to school; Courtney plans to take a gap year; Corey is considering entering the military before transferring to a university. Both brothers want to eventually study animation, and Courtney wants to major in social work.
But the three siblings, while saving money by attending community college, became the first people in their family to finish college and graduate with degrees.
“It makes us feel awesome,” Corey said.
He said he knew his experience had been different from those of his friends who went to four-year schools after graduating with him and his siblings from Massaponax High School.
“I read a lot of comments from people on Facebook saying they wish they had gone to Germanna first,” he said, “because of the money.”
Farris was pleased at the outcome of the congressional bill that froze student loan interest rates instead of allowing them to double.
“I think the emergency measure now to keep rates from doubling is smart,” Farris said, even though he pointed out that the loans had been set since 2008 to double this year.
Congress will have to re-evaluate its choices next year.
The bill, a mishmash of transportation spending expansions and the agreement on student loan rates, passed at the last minute before Congress was set to go on its summer recess.
Liana Bayne: 540/374-5444