Faces of debt

Pub date January 12, 2011


CAREERS AND ED In this weeks’ issue, Rebecca Bowe examines rising tuition and its effect on this generation of Californian students. Here, we profile three scholars that are dealing with very real repercussions from their student debt load.



Mills College, teaching credential

Oberlin College, American literature major

Total debt: $25,000

Ben Gleason remembers the day that he applied for his $10,000 student loan from Citibank to finance his teaching credential tuition. “I got it done online within a half hour. I didn’t have to talk to anybody or write an essay — easy money with severe consequences.” The consequences of such a serious financial decision — sans the aid of any counseling from either his school or bank? Gleason’s eventual decision to leave classroom teaching.

It’s not an uncommon story for this generation of teaching school graduates, in a state where teaching salaries are hardly keeping pace with rising tuition. Gleason started working as an ESL teacher in Richmond’s underfunded West Contra Costa Unified School District right after graduating from Mills College. His student loans were overwhelming — a problem that was exacerbated when he took a trip to Guatemala to work and improve his ability to communicate with his Spanish-speaking pupils. To remain afloat financially, Gleason applied for a forbearance on his loans and was surprised to return home after two years to a loan that had gone up by 25 percent due to interest. “I was really, really screwed,” he recalls.

Gleason didn’t feel like there was any way he could go back to his teaching salary, so to support his new wife (the two met in Guatemala) and daughter, he decided to start his own business with the help of an old boss — a private firm that helps reeducate state government workers on sustainability issues.

That means one less qualified teacher for low-income Californian children. And Gleason still has 15 to 20 years left of debt payments. “I wish that there was a more systemic way to solve this problem,” says the former public educator.



Santa Clara University, law degree

College of St. Catherine St. Paul, library sciences

Concordia University St. Paul, international studies and history major

Total debt (estimated at graduation): $120,000

Anne Mostad-Jensen and her twin sister grew up in a small Minnesota town. They attended the same college, Concordia St. Paul, where they both majored in history and international studies. After that, they went on to College of St. Catherine (also in St. Paul) to get their master’s degrees in library science. But then their paths diverged. Her sister traveled to Denmark in pursuit of her Danish citizenship — their father is Danish — and was able to complete her master’s in a country where the government pays for most of its citizens’ educations. Mostad-Jensen remained in Minnesota, to continue on in the American university system.

What kind of difference has the move made in these women’s lives? Try $65,000 of student debt. That’s because Mostad-Jensen’s sister, even after completing her master’s and attending one of the Icelandic languages programs she’s currently applying for, will only owe roughly $55,000 worth of loans — all from her time at American schools. Mostad-Jensen, who is now attending law school at Santa Clara University, will owe $120,000 by the time she graduates. “I’ve never had any consumer debt, but I’ve always told myself not to pass up educational opportunities just because I didn’t have the cash on hand,” she says.

Mostad-Jensen wants to work at the intersection of international copyright and technology law, possibly in a law library, a specialty career that benefits from degrees in multiple areas of study. She counts herself lucky that homeownership and a family aren’t her immediate goals. “Having a family — I just don’t understand how people do it with debt these days.” Her Midwestern community values come to the fore when she talks about the U.S. government’s inability to provide Americans with affordable education. “Isn’t the government an extension of the community? Europeans, the lack of stress they have by not having to pay out of pocket for health care and education — I mean they can actually live their lives.”



UC Berkeley, geography major

Total debt: $25,000

Ramon Quintero is a UC Berkeley student activist, but he wasn’t always radicalized around debt issues. “I didn’t come to Berkeley because of its activist reputation. I became an activist because of my situation,” he says. Quintero could no longer pay for his student housing and wound up living in his 1979 Toyota truck with camper shell on the streets of Berkeley, sending his baby daughter home to live with her grandmother.

Quintero came to Berkeley via Southern California, where his family landed after immigrating from Sinaloa, Mexico, when he was 11. He attended community college to get his core credits before coming to Berkeley, where rapidly rising tuition fees are putting a strain on the student community. Although he is a legal resident, Quintero was especially concerned about the effect that the rising cost of education was having on undocumented students.

And, of course, on his leaky camper shell roof. He sprang into action, driving a truck that he calls Santa Rita, to all nine UC campuses, encouraging fellow students to paint art on it that spoke to their concerns for the future of public education. Quintero was arrested twice for his roles in campus protests and he and Santa Rita were profiled in The New York Times and several California newspapers. Suddenly, the university found space for him in student housing.

“I saw the hypocrisy in the system,” says Quintero, who has fulfilled all his UC coursework for graduation but has convinced a professor to hold credit for one of his courses for another semester so he could go on a research fellowship to Madrid. The fellowship, he says, is crucial for his application to grad schools — another step toward fulfilling life goals he doesn’t think would be possible if he has to begin assuming the burden of his student debt.