Making Sacrifices for Student Debt: One Lawyer’s Story

The main quad, also called "The Yard," is Howard University’s symbolic heart and center of campus life.

The main quad, also called "The Yard," is Howard University’s symbolic heart and center of campus life.

May 17, 2017

There are a wealth of myths surrounding student debt loans and their repayment. For example, many students who pursue law degrees do so with the belief that the careers they enter after graduation will be profitable enough to be worth the student debt they incur. In some cases, they’re right; in other cases, like that of Christina Thomas, J.D., things aren’t quite so straightforward.

Christina 
Thomas

Christina Thomas isn’t the only one who feels the weight of her student loan debt.

Thomas, 40, is multiracial: Her mother is German and Cuban, and her father is African and Cuban. Her mother went to college in Cuba, where her education was paid for by the government. In contrast, the United States, where her parents immigrated, is among the few developed countries that do not offer free postsecondary education. As Thomas prepared to go to college in the United States, she realized the disconnect that existed between her parents’ background and her current home. Her parents simply never expected to take on loans for Thomas’ education. They had saved up some money, but the rest was up to Thomas. Thomas says her parents told her, “We pushed hard to go to school, go out there, go forth and prosper.”

Nearly two decades after earning her undergraduate and law degrees, Thomas, who lives in Washington, D.C., pays $1,089 per month on a fixed-payment plan toward her student loans. She has never owned a house and “may never own one” — which she attributes directly to her $200,000 in student loan debt. Even though the long-term benefit of buying a home would be better, the short term of having to set aside thousands of dollars for a down payment doesn’t make sense, says Thomas. “Decisions are made off money,” says Thomas. And that means that every choice Thomas makes must take her student loan debt, and the increasing interest she will incur over the course of her payment plan, into account.

AAUW’s research report Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans shows that even though borrowers may make all the “right” choices to be able to pay off student loan debt, such as entering profitable career fields, many things can hinder them in making efficient repayments. Women take on more student debt than their male peers; black and Latina women tend to pay off student loans at a slower rate than most men; and nontraditional students — including student parents, financially independent students, and part-time students — are less likely to complete an academic program, potentially leaving them with debt but without a degree.

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Though she is now married, Thomas was a single mother of two children as she worked part time and studied her way through her last two years of undergraduate school at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and then Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City. Today, parents of dependent children account for 26 percent of postsecondary students in the United States, and also take on roughly $7,500 more in loans than students without dependent children while completing a bachelor’s degree. On top of incurring extra debt, student parents must balance the needs of children, affecting whether students can pay back their debt efficiently and on time.

Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans research report cover

Learn more about how student debt affects women in AAUW’s new research report, Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans

The sacrifices Thomas made were governed not only by her children’s needs but also by the weight of student loan debt. While parenting students face a number of predictable difficulties, such as finding convenient and affordable child care, navigating logistical issues, and lack of a solid supportive social network, other issues may arise that are impossible to plan for. Thomas encountered one of those unexpected hurdles with her son, who experienced mental health issues growing up. Thomas had to weigh paying her student loans against getting immediate medical help for her son — a decision that would be difficult for any parent.

Thomas’ children are older now. Her 18-year-old daughter has gone into the Marine Corps, and her son, at 14, is preparing to decide on a major for college. On the surface their paths seem like the choices children and their parents make every day about the future, but in truth both of her children’s futures have been heavily influenced by Thomas’ student debt: Her daughter went into the military as a way to gain life experience without incurring debt. Thomas and her son have agreed that, although his parents will take on the cost of his education, he will only be allowed to major in fields that guarantee employment after graduation, such as computing or engineering. “I would have done it different if I had had an awareness [about student loans],” Thomas says of her decisions about her own education.

Her kids’ career plans aren’t the only choices that have been constrained by debt. Thomas herself changed careers from working as a legislative counsel on Capitol Hill to working as a lobbyist for a group focused on dental education and academics, a better-paying job that would help her pay for her son’s education. A generation later, Thomas’ student loan debt is still taking its toll on her — and on her children, too.

Want to learn more about how student loans affect women? Read AAUW’s new research report, Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans.

This post was written by AAUW Editorial Assistant Femi Sobowale.

 


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