I am concerned that the debate by politicians about student loans is actually distracting us from the critical need for financial aid for deserving young people who lack the resources and experience to achieve higher education. The debate focuses on the mechanics of loans, interest rates and what types of educational enterprises should be eligible to offer loans, while it minimizes the need for loans for deserving persons.
Thinking about this takes me back to my own college days and my struggle to survive financially, and it highlights why, for some, financial aid is critically important.
My family made no provisions for me to go to college, much less seminary. If you are the first generation of your family to go to college, no one in the family has any idea what it takes to pay for tuition, fees, room and board, books and other living expenses.
To get to college in the first place, I worked summers at all kinds of jobs. I’ve hauled trash, mowed weeds on the roadside, been a lifeguard. When I got to college, I sold subscriptions door to door to make ends meet. These jobs did not provide a reliable source of income.
Church aid makes difference
In those days, I was hungry a lot of the time. I gave up my meal ticket in college because I couldn’t afford it.
If I went home on the weekends, I would bring back whatever food I could, but in those days before there were dorm refrigerators, I would buy a bag of cinnamon rolls and try to make them last all week, allowing myself only one in the morning and one at night.
After my freshman year at a private university, I had to transfer to a less expensive public university. I took an appointment as a supply pastor and commuted 50 to 60 miles a day so I could live in the parsonage and save on room and board. I’d leave at 4 a.m. and wouldn’t get back home until 10 p.m. And later, when I attended seminary, I took a position as a student intern with a paid salary.
But the critical difference came in the form of United Methodist student loans and scholarships that helped my wife and me to get by. A United Methodist student loan was the most affordable loan I could get, and it filled in the gap between the individual scholarships I received and the income I was able to earn.
That loan made it possible for me to get an education. The term of the loan was long enough and the interest rate low enough that the payments were manageable on a pastor’s income after graduation.
Education must be affordable
The United Methodist Church has a long history of helping students reduce college debt through scholarships and low-interest loans. In fact, the 146-year-old United Methodist Student Loan Fund is the oldest student loan fund in the United States.
In a sense, this track record is a prophetic public witness to the need for accessible financial aid for deserving but resource-limited persons. The scholarship and loans were vitally important to me, and I’m deeply grateful that I was able to get them. They made all the difference for me, but the church can’t do this alone.
In the current debate about financial aid and student debt, my hope is that we can find ways to make higher education affordable for all, especially for young people who lack resources and whose families lack the experience of higher education and its costs.