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For many grads, degrees and debt go hand in hand

BY Liana Bayne

Mary Smith’s four sons hope to have bright careers in engineering, science and criminal justice.

She hopes their student loans don’t get in the way.

On July 6, after months of debate in Congress, President Barack Obama signed a bill, HR 4348, that froze the current federal student loan interest rate for the next year at 3.4 percent.

But students like the Smith brothers still struggle with loans, especially when they feel college is a necessity, not an option. The Smiths’ story is just one of many across the country that illustrate the effect loans can have on college students and recent grads.

Smith’s sons–Douglas, who graduated from the University of Dayton in 2004 with a mechanical engineering degree; Adam, who graduated from Virginia Wesleyan College in 2011 with a biology degree; Geoffrey, who hopes to graduate from Dayton in 2014 with a civil engineering degree; and Philip, who hopes to graduate from Virginia Wesleyan in 2016 with degrees in accounting and criminal justice–have all depended on federal and private loans to attend college.

Mary Smith, now a technology resource teacher for Fredericksburg city schools, said she thinks her choice to be a stay-at-home mom for 11 years while her sons were young skewed their applications for federal student aid.

“It doesn’t look at history,” Smith said of the application. While her family now has two incomes and is not generally in debt, they lived on only one income and don’t have much saved.

Smith’s two older sons got some “OK financial aid” and a Virginia Tuition Assistance Grant, but her younger sons haven’t been so lucky. They had to take out more loans to cover tuition than their older brothers did.

“There’s not a lot of money to help middle-income people,” Smith said.

Smith’s sons all took loans in their names, with their parents as co-signers to give them lower interest rates.

The problem with co-signing, she said, is that “loans don’t go away.”

“If, God forbid, anything should happen to one of them, we’re responsible for paying those loans,” Smith said.

The most recent grad in the family, Adam, is having the hardest time right now, his mom said. He lives in Richmond and is working at a job that pays about $35,000 per year.

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