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The struggle to pay off student loans and what’s being done to relieve the stress

MARATHON COUNTY (WAOW) —  Julie Burgess is a music teacher in the D.C. Everest School District. She and her husband both took out student loans when they attended college and were able to pay them off following a 10-15 year plan.

But, it was her own children’s college education that put her in debt.

“We had to defer them twice because it was that or lose our house,” Julie said about the parent plus loans she took out to help some of her kids get through school. Deferring the loans isn’t something they thought they’d have to do, but when Julie’s husband temporarily was out of work they had no other choice.

“When we were able to start paying them again the interest had gotten so large that it’s just this monumental amount now that we’re just never going to get out from under,” she said.

They originally took out  $40,000 in parent plus loans. That quickly turned into $70,000. High interest rates, sometimes up to 10%, are something many students and graduates struggle with.

Becki Balubach went back to school as a single mom. She originally took out $42,000 to help her attend UW Stevens Point. And although she’s following her payment plan, she said she hasn’t even been able to touch the principle yet.

“My loans have grown about  $13,000 since I graduated in 2009… I looked at my payment plan and as of now I’m projected to pay $98,000 after interest,” Becki said.

She said she’s worried about what she’s going to do when her oldest son heads off to college in a few years.

“I don’t know how I’m going to pay for that when I’m still paying off all of my own [loans],” she said.

Now Julie and Becki fear they’ll be continuing to pay loans late into life. It’s a fear many Wisconsinites share.

According to Forbes, the national student loan debt currently sits at $1.5 trillion. In Wisconsin, experts said it’s at $24 billion.

And now more money is being borrowed than ever before.

“A lot more people are taking out the full amount being offered versus just saying I only need $5,000 right now so I’ll only take out the $5,000,” said College Affordability Specialist Cheryl Rapp.

On top of all of that, college tuition continues to increase. Since 2010, the average cost of living has increased by about 17%, while the average college tuition (in state, out of state, and private) has increased about 29% in the same time period.

Rapp’s position of college affordability specialist was created in 2016.

“Part of my job is to kind of let people know that is what you need to be prepared for. Not going in blind anymore and don’t just automatically sign paper that they put in front of you cause you don’t realize you’re signing a federal loan,” Rapp said.

She’s still working her way across the state bringing tools and tips to students and graduates. She’s also created, which is a resource for those planning on taking out or who have already taken out loans.

Her biggest piece of advice? Start planning early and stay in communication with financial advisors at universities as well as loan providers.

Rapp is also part of a student loan refinancing task force put together by the state.

The task force has held multiple listening sessions across the state, learning more about the struggles that people like Julie and Becki face. They are set to present recommendation on how to tackle the debt crisis to Governor Tony Evers by October 2020.

But the price tag of a high education continues to remain an intimidating factor for many.

“I don’t know how people save for college, I honestly don’t,” Julie said. “We’re willing to work, we’re not looking for a handout, but I just feel like we’re being punished because it’s ridiculous how much we have to pay back.”

She hopes higher education is something her students will be able to pursue, but without the crushing debt she’s experienced.

“Don’t give up the dream of wanting to go to college if they can go… start saving their money because unless something changes they’re going to be in the same boat we are.”

Sarah McGrew

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