Students With College Loans Feel Added Pressure As The Economy Tanks

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In this Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018, photo students and passers-by walk past an entrance to Boston University College of Arts and Sciences (Steven Senne/AP File Photo)
In this Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018, photo students and passers-by walk past an entrance to Boston University College of Arts and Sciences (Steven Senne/AP File Photo)

Alex Silva was just barely managing to pay his student loans.

"My fiancee is a waitress, and she made pretty good money" Silva said.

He has a master's degree in accounting and owes more than $100,000 in undergraduate and graduate loans. Between his job in accounting and his fiancee's job as a waitress, they were getting by living at his parents' with their nearly 1-year-old daughter.

Toward the end of his graduate school education, he still owed tuition to Northeastern University. The school agreed to let him finish his graduate degree with a balance due. He worked out a payment plan of about $400 a month for the next four years.

Silva and his fiancee were able to save $50 to $100 a month.

Since restaurants were ordered by Gov. Charlie Baker to go to delivery and takeout only, they have to rely solely on Silva's income plus some unemployment benefits his fiancee collects.

The federal government has reset the interest rate on student loans to zero, and student borrowers can defer payments until September.

"It does help," Silva said. "[It] addresses the federal student loans. I think that's great, but I don't think that's the heart of the issue."

The heart of the issue for Silva is that federal loans amount to only about a third of what he owes in private loans, and the federal stimulus does not provide for any relief from those loans.

He's is not sure what the solution is.

"You can't just say it's no longer a debt," he said. "A lot of people would lose money, but at the same time, it's very hard for a lot of people my age."

Ed tech entrepreneur Nick Ducoff, co-founder of the Boston company Edmit, which helps parents negotiate bigger financial aid packages from colleges, said the drop in interest rates on federal college loans to zero would mean it's less expensive to go to college.

"Without question, the cost of college education is going to be lower next year than it was this year, for all schools," said Ducoff.

Since students' and parents' ability to pay will be dramatically lower, Ducoff predicts that should put a lot of pressure on colleges to lower prices in the form of more financial aid.

As dean of financial services at Northeastern University, Rob Reddy said he has not encountered students saying they're scared of borrowing or don't want to borrow.

But he said he and his staff have seen a sizable increase in families asking for more financial help. They've been having a lot of conversations with parents worried about losing their jobs.

"There's a lot of that going on," Reddy says. "I haven't lost my job yet, but I'm worried. Do I want to make that type of investment?"

Reddy said parents are worried about the collapse of the stock market and the fact they'll have to save more for retirement as a result, leaving less for their children's college education.

"We're looking at how we can increase the scholarship and grant budget so that we can continue to be as generous an institution," Reddy said.

Northeastern meets full student need, mostly through grants, but also with some loans. Reddy said the university is in a strong financial position to help students and is committing $300 million to grants and scholarships.

Lauren Jones Forbes has been trying to keep her student loan debt down when she graduates this spring with a Master's in social work at Boston University. She's been paying some of the interest while she's still in school, but isn't sure whether she should continue.

"Any extra money right now would be useful to have," she said. "But then I'm thinking about  when you delay payments, how that builds up and the interest is still, accruing."

Jones Forbes had two jobs, but lost one when a nonprofit she worked for laid her off.

Her other job is as a home health aide. Even though she is no longer meeting with her client in order to prevent either of them from being exposed to the coronavirus, she is still receiving a paycheck for that position.

She's also wondering how the job market when she graduates will affect her ability to pay off her loans.

"It's a feeling of uncertainty, just not knowing exactly what is going to happen, which is the scary part," said Jones Forbes. "I know social workers are always needed.'

But she worries about how long the pandemic and its economic consequences will last.

She estimates that she will owe $40,000 to $42,000 in loans by the time she gets her degree.

Joseli Alonzo is also pursuing a master's in social work from Boston University.

She's a first-generation college student. She earned her bachelor's degree from UMass Boston with $11,000 in loans. Her loans for grad school amount to much more: $40,000.

Alonzo also worries about what kinds of jobs she can get when she graduates this spring. She's always wanted to work in hospitals.

"Every day, it's a different emotion," she said. "Some days are more like: 'I can manage this.' Some days, I'm more angry and just frustrated and I don't even know who or what I'm angry at. And then some days it's just like I'm coping through humor and laughing at the situation. It's been a roller coaster of emotions."

She's living in her family's apartment in Field's Corner in Dorchester. Some of her classmates, she said, have nowhere to live.

"Their priority is finding somewhere to sleep," she says, so for them even finding a job, much less paying off loans, is not the top priority.

"This has to be put on hold, not just for a few months, but for awhile, until the actual crisis is under control," she said.

As executive director for financial assistance at Boston University, Julie Wickstrom is starting to field requests from incoming students asking for more financial aid than the university has offered.

"We're just starting to hear from students about changes in their circumstances," she said. "We have more appeals than we usually have at this time of year."

BU had been planning to meet full financial need for the first time with the incoming freshman class next fall. Wickstrom said the university intends to fulfill that commitment.

She and her staff are starting to hear from students whose parents have lost their jobs, and she said BU is open to increasing financial aid. But she said BU has yet to hear from students unable to meet their loan obligations to private lenders.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the surname of Joseli Alonzo. The story has been updated. We regret the error.

This article was originally published on April 13, 2020.

This segment aired on April 13, 2020.


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Fred Thys Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.



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