Woster: Work needed for those suffocated by student loans

In the last few years, some of our leaders have talked of student loan forgiveness or of restructuring the system so debt doesn’t continue to pile up. It’s an emotional issue, for sure.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster

The other evening, as we watched a granddaughter’s favored television program, her mom had to explain why Grandpa laughed when someone said “plastics.’’

The reference, of course, was to the late 1960s movie, “The Graduate.’’ At a party celebrating the main character’s college graduation, a family friend approaches to say, “Just one word. Plastics.’’ The graduate seems puzzled by the career advice. The line makes me laugh.

Nancy and I saw the movie not long after it came out. We were less than a year out of college ourselves and working our first “real’’ jobs. Plastics wasn’t in our future. As it turned out, those jobs — as a registered nurse at McKennan Hospital and as a reporter and photographer at the Argus Leader — became our careers, in one way or another.

We were paying off college loans at the time. The graduate on the movie didn’t have that worry. His family had money, and he spent his graduation summer lounging by the pool. No college loans bothered him. Most young women and men, even back in the ‘60s, weren’t so lucky.

My friends at South Dakota State and Nancy’s classmates at St. Catherine’s in St. Paul scrambled to finance their college educations. We scoured the lists of financial aid for any and every small stipend. We worked in the student union or in gas stations and cafes downtown. We borrowed against future earnings, which we were told our college degrees would bring us.


In recent months, I’ve reflected on the college debt Nancy and I incurred to obtain degrees in nursing and journalism. It wasn’t much, not in the context of today’s college loan repayment discussions. Some of the college loan stories I read and hear about these days involve amounts of money that stagger me.

I’m also stunned by some of the tales of people who have made payments for several years and have a bigger debt than when they started. I know how interest works, but I’m still stunned that 10, 20 even more years out of college, people have that debt.

I think I finished college with $600 or $800 in debt. I thought that was quite a bit for a guy whose first job paid $100 a week. The editor told me that if I hadn’t had my degree, I’d have started at $90 a week, so already it was paying dividends.

(An aside to show how fortunate I really was: I left Brookings owing a bill at Fergen’s for a couple of suits and shirts and a pair of dress shoes I was going to need for job interviews and steady work. I didn’t have a job when I got the clothes. Jim Fergen told me he trusted college kids and I should make payments when I could, no interest charged. He threw in two ties and a belt, too. I paid him off as quickly as I could spare the cash.)

Nancy left St. Kate’s with something like $1,000 in debt. McKennan started her at $110 a week. Between us, we were pulling down $210 a week. We thought we had it made. I guess we did. We paid off our combined package of debt inside of a year. Tough to do that today.

In the last few years, some of our leaders have talked of student loan forgiveness or of restructuring the system so debt doesn’t continue to pile up. It’s an emotional issue, for sure. On one side are people who worked to repay their loans, so why shouldn’t everyone else. On the other side are people who are nearly in despair, convinced they’ll never have a job that gets them out from under the burden of the cost of their college education.

I’m not smart enough to know the answer. I can see the argument of those who paid their loans. I did, too. But it seems like it was easier in my day. And I sympathize with the people who feel suffocated by their student loans. That’s not a good way to live.

There must be an approach between all and nothing. The intelligent folks among us need to work on that. They really do.

Opinion by Terry Woster
What To Read Next
Get Local