A plan to avoid student loan debt, the old-school way

President Biden’s plan for loan forgiveness has no provision for future graduates. They need a plan to avoid huge debt. As a student, I lived frugally, rode the CTA daily, worked part-time and after getting my master’s degree, I taught, sometimes at three universities each semester.

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Students walk through campus at the University of Illinois Chicago, hours after President Biden announced his long-awaited student loan relief plan on Aug. 24, 2022.

Students walk through campus at the University of Illinois Chicago, hours after President Biden announced his long-awaited student loan relief plan on Aug. 24, 2022.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Last summer, President Joe Biden announced a student loan debt relief program that could potentially alleviate the financial burden carried by millions of federal, not private, borrowers.

Depending on their income and whether they received a federal Pell Grant or not, a student borrower could have $10,000 to $20,000 in loan forgiveness. A Republican-led challenge, however, has Biden’s plan is on hold, awaiting a decision by the Supreme Court.

When it comes to this convulsive issue, I find myself to be somewhat ambivalent towards those suffering financially. My own college experiences tell the tale.

A late bloomer, I didn’t start college until I was almost 21, and after working as a laborer in a steel mill (poor, doomed Wisconsin Steel). I was a high school dropout with a GED, a Navy-surplus watch cap, a rucksack and a desire to get an education — not necessarily a degree, an important distinction.

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Unsure yet curious, I enrolled at the old Loop College at 64 E. Lake, as it was a central location and inexpensive. After I earned an associate’s degree at Loop, I moved on to Northeastern Illinois University for my bachelor’s and then master’s degrees. It was quite a haul from the 10th Ward on the Southeast Side to the far Northwest Side, but it was worth the trip. Like Loop College, the classes were small, the atmosphere relaxed and my professors were congenial and supportive. I felt privileged to be in their classes.

And while I was at Northeastern, I told myself the same thing that I told myself at Loop — that I wanted an education and not necessarily the degrees. They were afterthoughts. And it was inexpensive, which brings me back to the issue of cost.

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When I started college, I had a pretty hefty bankroll from the mill. As a student, I lived frugally, rode the CTA daily, worked part-time and after getting my master’s degree, I taught, sometimes at three universities each semester.

And I lived at home, as my parents were old, alone, in poor health. They needed me and they asked me to stay — how could I let them down? All in all, it was an education beyond classrooms and paper degrees, as the lessons were about love, family and debts of another kind.

While it was all sometimes burdensome, the money I saved allowed me to pay for my education: universities do want their money, you know. Along the way, I received no financial aid and I never applied for a student loan. When I eventually completed my Ph.D., I finished “in the black.”

It took time to get to the prize, but remember, the prize I desired was the education and not the degree — the knowledge behind the paper. And I sought, found, and was thankful for the quality experiences I encountered. When one seeks quality, time is irrelevant.

Because of my experiences, I have only limited sympathy for students who attended for-profit schools and are in debt. I have known a few of those students in past years and I thought well of them. But they made poor educational decisions, as those so-called schools are businesses concerned with profits. Admittedly, and sadly, many of those students were often misled by those so-called schools.

I also have limited sympathy for debt-ridden students who attended non-profit colleges and universities, whether public or private. While I understand their plight, they too should have known what the score was. Academic and family advisors seem to have failed both groups of students, but then perhaps both groups should have done a bit of research on their own.

Although what I have said here doesn’t help past graduates (or those who dropped out but are still on the financial hook), hopefully those who soon will be college-bound will have time to rethink their plans. Stay local, commute, work and take your time. Revel in your experiences.

Many of those future students might, instead, rebel. Um-like, I don’t have that kind of time! I can’t live at home—I hate my parents! I want to go away to college so I can party! Besides, after I get my degree, I’ll apply for debt relief! Um-like, whatever!

Class! Clap-clap! Pay attention! From my reading, I see nothing in Biden’s plan that applies to future borrowers past the cut-off date of June 30, 2022. His plan is finite, and not a forward-forgiving one.

Class dismissed!

John Vukmirovich is a Chicago-area writer and book reviewer.

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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