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'I will die with this debt': How student loan debt is impacting thousands of Coloradans

Posted at 5:00 PM, Mar 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-06 12:27:08-04

DENVER — Mel Glenn is most at home being outdoors.

“I love it,” Glenn said. “I love being outside.”

Her biology degree serves her well as she works on ecological restoration and mosquito control. And yet, it’s that same degree causing her daily heartburn.

“It’s just kind of an uphill struggle to save,” Glenn said. “I really can’t save any money because of my student loan debt.”

Sometimes she feels as if she’s carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders — $80,000 in student loan debt.

“I will die with this debt,” said Glenn, a 2013 graduate of Metropolitan State University of Denver. “I will never pay it off.”

She’s certainly not alone. An estimated 44 million Americans carry student loan debt, including 800,000 Coloradans. The non-profit Brookings Institute estimates total student loan debt around $1.5 trillion in the U.S.

“Some even have monthly payments over $1,000,” said Andrew Pentis, senior writer and certified student loan counselor with Student Loan Hero by Lending Tree.

But help could be on the way. Congressional leaders and the Biden administration are considering canceling out large sums of student loan debt. The sticking point is the amount. Some in Congress want $50,000 in loan forgiveness. President Biden has said he’s willing to consider $10,000.

“The average Coloradan has about $35,000 in student loan debt,” Pentis said.

Pentis supports any kind of relief.

“If you have $35,000 in student loan debt and it shrinks to $25,000 overnight, that also is going to shrink your monthly payment.”

At the university level – financial aid counselors see the same issues.

“I see every day how finances are really the largest barrier to students finishing a degree,” said Will Simpkins, MSU Denver’s vice president of student affairs.

Simpkins says in the 1980s state and local government covered two-thirds of the cost of college attendance. Fast forward 40 years, they only cover one-third.

“Which means that students and their families are feeling this in their pocketbooks, which means more debt, more loans,” Simpkins said.

Tuition at MSU Denver is about $8,000 a year. Across town at the University of Denver, it’s around $52,000 a year.

“One of our main messages is the sticker price is not the indicator of the affordability of the institution,” said John Gudvangen, DU’s director of financial aid.

Gudvangen, for one, isn’t sold on the idea of student loan forgiveness. Rather, he and his team are committed to making DU, a private school, affordable for students by counseling families before they start borrowing.

“How can we give them great counseling about not borrowing too much?” Gudvangen said. “We look very carefully at each individual student’s situation and do the best we can to make it an affordable place.”

Despite DU’s sticker price, between grants and scholarships, Gudvangen said students graduate from DU with a relatively low debt load — $28,000 on average.

“Our students have a similar amount of debt to students at the flagship public institutions in this state,” Gudvangen said.

Gudvangen believes it's a manageable amount.

And Pentis doesn’t disagree. He says good counseling and advice is often what’s lacking.

“We have 18-year-old, 19-year-old, 20-year-olds making major financial decisions about borrowing thousands of dollars and they don’t really understand what sort of burden they’ll have to fend off when they leave school,” Pentis said.

While that’s true for many, some are getting good advice now. Valeria Solis, Adrina Trejo and Katie Sanchez will graduate from Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School this May with two years of college credit, free of charge.

“I’m glad I took this opportunity when I could,” Sanchez said.

“The pros outweighed the cons by a lot,” Trejo said.

“I knew that as long as I worked hard and as long as I wanted it, I could achieve it,” Solis said. “And I had a lot of support.”

The program between Denver Public Schools and the Community College of Denver, MSU Denver and CU Denver is called College Success Pathway.

“To help students progress a lot quicker, especially students of color who are socio-economically disadvantaged,” said Emmanuel Garza, post-secondary coordinator at Lincoln High.

Students can receive two years of college credit without incurring any debt.

“And help students start thinking college early,” Garza said. “And know that they can get ahead. Even to the point they can get an associate degree free of charge.”

“All my credits were able to transfer,” said Trejo, who's headed to DU next fall.

Job recruiter Chris Specht points out that sometimes an associate degree is all you really need.

“That’s one route they can take to lower their debt burden,” Specht said.

Take software engineers, for example. Specht says many employers are looking for up-to-date certifications and experience, not necessarily a degree.

“Many of those people, like in the last 10 years, can go to code school,” Specht said. “And it’s essentially the equivalent of going and getting an associate degree. You get two years of schooling just on coding, for example.”

And that brings us back to student loan forgiveness. Some, like Godvangen, argue it should be specific to those who need it most.

“Why not target that relief if the funds are limited? So that nobody has to pay more than what they’re able to pay.”

Others say they paid their debt, so why should 44 million now receive debt forgiveness?

And yet others say blanket forgiveness could eliminate a dead weight on the economy.

“You’re never going to make everybody happy,” Simpkins said.

“When I hear the argument that we don’t want to give all this money to doctors and lawyers, I say, ‘Just give the money to doctors and lawyers,’” Glenn said. “It’s going to do wonders for the entire country, for the entire economy if people can spend money on something other than interest on loans.”