Feb 3 8:00 PM

The middle class student debt squeeze: Meet Jacinta Bader

Jacinta Bader, left, a middle school teacher and basketball coach in Brooklyn, Ohio.

Jacinta Bader, a middle school teacher and basketball coach in Brooklyn, Ohio, is doing the job she always wanted. But funding that dream was no layup for the 28-year-old.

“I knew that I wanted to teach. So I knew college was the only way to achieve that goal,” she said. Her father, a steel-mill crane operator, earned roughly $40,000 a year — enough for a modest middle-class living and too much for his daughter to qualify for federal grants to help pay for college. “They said if I was under a certain age, that I had to put my parents’ income down and that they made too much,” she said. “I just remember my parents scrimping and saving, and they didn’t drive nice cars. We lived in a modest house growing up, and I just couldn’t believe that we made too much money.”

The lack of access to grants didn’t dissuade Bader from going to college, but it did put her at a disadvantage financially when she graduated — and not just against better-off students.

These families don’t make enough to quality for these aid packages, and yet they also don’t make enough money to really afford the cost of college

Jason Houle

Assistant Professor, Dartmouth University

A recent study by Jason Houle, an assistant professor of sociology at Dartmouth University, found that students like Bader, from families earning $40,000 to $59,000 a year, incur $11,000 more in student-loan debt than those from poorer families and those from more affluent homes. 

“These families don’t make enough to quality for these aid packages, and yet they also don’t make enough money to really afford the cost of college,” said Houle. “The reality of it is that college costs have skyrocketed in the past 30 years, and yet middle-class incomes have completely stagnated, so we’re really expecting these families to carry a much greater burden of cost than they did 20 or 30 years ago, and they really don’t have the resources to do so.”

Bader’s father did what he could to help his daughter pay for college, putting away money from each paycheck to buy savings bonds, which vested late last year. When the family cashed them in, they were worth $6,000 — less than a fourth of what Badar owed on her student loans. “He was happy that he could help out, but he kept apologizing, and it broke my heart,” she said. “Six thousand dollars to me is a lot of money, but then when he saw my bill when he was getting ready to put the money toward my student loan, he was just shocked at how much I owed.” 

Bader graduated with about $25,000 in student debt, despite doing everything she could to cut costs, including studying at community college for two years before completing her degree at Cleveland State University. “I was working almost full time when I was in school, and so I never took out anything extra,” she said. “I paid for books out of pocket. I didn’t take out loans for living expenses, and I tried to pay for all my community-college costs up front.”

Bader’s husband, Jeremy, borrowed $30,000 to pay for his college degree. Before they graduated, they made the strategic decision to buy a house using money they received as wedding gifts for the $3,000 down payment.   

“Our Realtor was a family friend,” said Bader. “She had said now is the time to buy. We didn’t want to wait until after we both graduated, because we couldn’t get approved for a loan if our student debt was factored in.”

The couple’s combined student-loans payments are $600 a month, about a fifth of their after-tax income and their second biggest expense after their mortgage, which they tried to refinance. Bader said student-loan debt prevented them from getting a better rate. “We live paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “We both have car payments, but if one of our cars goes, we don’t know what we would really do.”

Not only has student-loan debt left the couple on financial tenterhooks, it is also preventing them from becoming parents. “We actually a couple years ago started trying for a family,” said Bader. “Now we’ve been trying for about three years and aren’t able to get pregnant on our own, and we’ve had a lot of discussions about starting a family, but we can’t adopt because it would be about $30,000, and we can’t go the IVF route because that would be about $15,000, and we can’t take out $15,000 worth of loans right now.”

Houle says Bader’s struggle is indicative of what’s happening around the country. “We’re seeing even among these young people who have done everything right — they’ve gone to college, they’ve graduated, they’ve left the nest — but we’re seeing these pretty massive inequalities in the amount of debt they owe, and we have to think about how that is going to affect their well-being going forward.”

Bader is already thinking about how student debt will affect the eighth graders in her classroom and the girls she coaches on the basketball court. “It breaks my heart to see these kids work so hard and hear their dreams that they want to be doctors and having to tell them, ‘Well do you know how much it costs to become a doctor?” she said. “I don’t want to burst their bubble, but I also want them to realistic with their expectations.”

She hopes things will improve by the time her students are ready to go to college. “It feels like there’s a war on the middle class,” she said. “Forty thousand dollars doesn’t seem like that much money to live an average life and pay half of your yearly income for a year’s worth of college. That just doesn’t — it’s just so hard to comprehend that that’s feasible.” 

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