Student loan debt hits some Christian college students particularly hard
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On the 15th of each month, Sarah Richardson scrupulously avoids logging in to her bank account. That’s the day her student loan payment is withdrawn. She gets a small discount for using automatic withdrawal, but she also has other motivations. “It would make it more real for me if I had to go online and make those payments or write a check,” she said. “This way, I can just tell myself I make a lot less money than I actually do.”
Richardson’s little trick helps cushion the blow, but the reality of her loans is still hard to shoulder. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Patrick Henry College, a small Christian liberal arts school in Purcellville, Va., in 2021. When she graduated, her student loan debt stood at $120,000, including the principal and interest that accrued during her four years of study.
While Christian schools often give generous scholarships, a minority of graduates leave with extremely high levels of debt. For them, that debt makes it difficult to pursue vocations like marriage, parenthood, and full-time ministry. Administrators rightly note that students and their parents freely choose to take on such debt. Still, the high cost of Christian education underscores a deeper problem that could threaten the future of the colleges themselves: Christian parents, facing their own financial uncertainty, are steering their children to less expensive schools, or away from college altogether.
About 1 in 5 Americans has some amount of student loan debt, making it a hot topic in Washington. About 92 percent of the $1.8 trillion debt on student loans is held by the federal government. Last year, President Joe Biden tried to forgive $10,000 to $20,000 in federal student loans per borrower, but on June 30 the Supreme Court struck down that program.
The administration immediately announced plans for alternative ways to forgive student loan debt, including a decrease in monthly payment amounts based on a borrower’s income. Barring that, borrowers will soon have to start making payments again. The pause on loan payments that went into effect in March 2020 due to the pandemic ends this fall. The bills could hit hard. Americans have more debt for college than for credit cards or cars. Before the pandemic pause, 10 to 20 percent of student loans were in default. And student loan debt differs in that it is nearly impossible to discharge in bankruptcy. The loans even follow the borrower into retirement. Between 2001 and 2015 the government garnished $1.1 billion from Social Security payments to cover defaulted student loans, according to a study by the Government Accountability Office.
Biden’s program would not have helped Sarah Richardson because Patrick Henry is one of a handful of colleges that don’t accept federal loans. But some of the borrowers bracing for the resumption of payments did graduate from other Christian colleges.
RICHARDSON GREW UP in a Christian family of six children, all of whom were homeschooled. Her parents were unable to contribute to the cost of her education in any way. While they worried about the cost, they were excited at the prospect of their daughter attending Patrick Henry College, which was founded in 2000 by prominent homeschooling advocate Michael Farris. “My parents liked the whole mission of the school because they were very, very involved in the homeschool movement,” Richardson said. (WORLD agreed not to use Richardson’s real name because of her work in intelligence.)
Her parents also believed the school’s strategic intelligence major represented an excellent opportunity, offering her a direct path into a national security career without first joining the military.
Patrick Henry awarded Richardson a $12,000 annual scholarship, and she worked up to 30 hours a week at several different jobs. Her toughest job was night shifts for campus security. “I sacrificed a lot of sleep for that,” she said. But the loans still piled up—and so did the interest.
Richardson’s $120,000 debt is nearly four times higher than the national average of $33,000 for those earning bachelor’s degrees at private nonprofit colleges and $27,400 at public colleges. Six-figure debt is usually associated with advanced degrees. Still, Richardson is friends with five Patrick Henry classmates who also carry student loan debt over six figures. They share group texts for support and advice. Richardson’s degree landed her a lucrative intelligence job immediately. But some of her five friends majored in lower-paying fields like literature and journalism.
Richardson speaks with a poise beyond her years. Since graduation, she has focused with eagle-eyed intensity on making money to repay her loans.
“I have been very bold about asking for raises,” she said.
THE MODERN FEDERAL student loan program got its start with the Higher Education Act of 1965. But the program grew faster than anyone anticipated. Alice Rivlin, an economist who helped develop the program, came to regret her work. In 2019 shortly before her death, she told The Wall Street Journal, “We unleashed a monster.”
The price of attending college skyrocketed as the government repeatedly expanded borrowing. In 1987, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education, William Bennett, published an op-ed in The New York Times titled “Our Greedy Colleges.” He blasted colleges for raising costs at a much higher rate than inflation. “Federal student aid policies do not cause college price inflation, but there is little doubt that they help make it possible,” Bennett wrote. Almost no one in higher education listened. Between 2000 and 2022, college tuition rose by 178 percent, while consumer prices overall rose only 74.4 percent, according to research on inflation rates from the American Enterprise Institute.
When I enrolled at Patrick Henry in the fall of 2002, the annual cost of tuition plus room and board was around $17,500 ($29,000 in today’s dollars). The cost this fall is $37,800. Howard Schmidt, Patrick Henry’s executive vice president, noted the school has changed quite a bit since my time as a student. “The original college had only a handful of dorms and one administration building at the beginning and a forecast on what they thought a college would cost. Since 2000 we have added a major facility to our campus and expanded our services,” he told me via email. Schmidt pointed out that tuition has risen just 1.7 percent over the past nine years.
Indeed, the cost to attend Patrick Henry is below average for a Christian college. Dan Nelson is the chief institutional data and research officer at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn. Each year, he co-authors an in-depth financial aid survey for the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU). Fifty-three schools responded to his survey in 2021. The average total for tuition, fees, room, and board was $40,798. That’s 20 percent below the $51,047 national average for private, nonprofit four-year schools but still more than 50 percent higher than the public school average of $19,920.
Christian colleges usually offer students a financial aid package consisting of scholarships or tuition discounts, loans, and a part-time job on campus. They also anticipate an “expected family contribution.” Most schools do take federal aid, with the interest rate on loans currently set at 5.5 percent. Students with demonstrated financial need can get all or part of their loan “subsidized,” meaning no interest accrues while the student is enrolled at least half time and up to six months after graduation.
But like Richardson, not all students have parents who can contribute. Carolyn Bolton grew up in a homeschooling family of five children. She looked for a smaller Christian school “because I didn’t want to be just a number.” Geneva College in Pennsylvania seemed to be the right fit. It offered a political science major and had a soccer team, Bolton’s favorite sport. Her parents could provide little assistance, so she relied on loans. She took extra classes and though she graduated a semester early in 2009, her loans still totaled $56,000 ($75,000 in today’s dollars).
Bolton lived with her parents after graduation to save, but the local job market was “abysmal.” A few years later, she got engaged. Her parents expected her to have a big wedding, an idea that overwhelmed her. “I still had so much debt,” she recalled, breaking down in tears. “I couldn’t even think about taking out more money for a wedding.” She ultimately ended the engagement. While the loans were not the only reason, they played a major role.
She’s not alone. In surveys, adults who hold student loans report having to delay important milestones because of their debt. They frequently mention financial impacts like being unable to save for retirement or buy a house. They also put off starting a family. In a 2022 survey, 14 percent of student loan borrowers said they delayed getting married and 16 percent said they delayed having a baby.
Nelson’s study found the average total debt of graduates earning B.A.’s at CCCU schools was $28,735 in 2021. Colleges typically only report their average debt, but that gives an incomplete picture. At Bethel University, Nelson said around one-third of graduates have no debt at all. But 20 percent borrowed $40,000 or more, and 6 to 7 percent borrowed $70,000 or more. “I would assume that our distribution of debt would be typical of similar Christian colleges and universities,” he said.
The reality of why students end up in extreme debt is nuanced. Nelson and his colleagues found that two categories drive the highest levels of borrowing. Some wealthy families borrow a large amount “then repay the loans after college by liquidating assets,” Nelson said. But other students “borrow excessive amounts to replace the expected parent contribution.”
Schmidt told me Patrick Henry does what it can to keep student debt to a minimum: “PHC has made major improvements in this area over the past five years, and we do everything we can to minimize the level of debt for each student, however each student/family makes their own decision about the amount of debt they are taking on. Each decision has trade-offs.”
According to the school’s admissions office, its 2022 incoming freshman class included 108 students. Of those, 81 percent in 2022 had no debt, at least for their first year. But 7 percent have loans of between $11,000 and $20,000 per year. And 2 percent have between $31,000 and $40,000, not including the interest that will accrue over four years.
DAVID AND EMILY RIMESTAD graduated from California Baptist University with joint student loans that totaled just over $100,000. Their debt did not stop them from starting a family. They married as students, and Emily gave birth to their first child during her senior year. But the debt seemed like an insurmountable obstacle to their dream of becoming missionaries. Sending agencies often won’t partner with missionaries who owe more than $20,000.
California Baptist takes federal aid and received over $52 million through federal student loans in 2021-2022, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. (Neither California Baptist nor Geneva College responded to interview requests.)
The Rimestads eventually turned to AIRO, a nonprofit that pays student loans for overseas missionaries. They began serving in Papua New Guinea in 2015.
AIRO currently works with 118 missionaries and has assumed responsibility for over $6 million in debt. It only accepts candidates with $100,000 or less in student loans per family unit. Founder Luke Womack still gets calls from graduates with more debt than that. “People will come to us with more, and say, ‘Hey, we have 150. What do we do?’ We say, ‘Well, if you can get your church to pay it down to 100, then we’ll be responsible for the other 100 while you go overseas,’” Womack told me.
College administrators I spoke with say the decision to take on loan debt lies with students and their families. Nelson said if the government determines a student is eligible for a federal loan “there’s not a whole lot schools can do to say, ‘No, you can’t borrow.’”
But Womack believes teenagers don’t realize what they are getting into. “I think very few 17-year-olds understand the impact that signing a promissory note for, on average, $28,400 will have on their life after college. I certainly didn’t. I had some student debt. By God’s grace, it wasn’t that much.”
The Rimestads say their parents raised them to be financially prudent. But student loans were viewed as something different. “Everybody talked about, ‘Oh, this is just what you need to do. This is the next step,’” David said. But he stressed they don’t feel “duped or somehow misled.” They knew somehow they would have to pay what they owed.
IDEALLY, PARENTS GUIDE THEIR CHILDREN toward sound choices about student loans. But that doesn’t always happen. Bolton said her father attended college in the 1970s when costs were significantly lower. “He didn’t realize how expensive college had gotten.” Her father didn’t know how much debt she had taken on until after she graduated. When she told him, “he was so shocked.”
Bolton estimates her parents ultimately paid off $20,000 of her debt. Her mother, who had stayed at home, took a paying job to help Bolton and her siblings with their loans.
Richardson and her parents understood the full amount of debt she was taking on, but the interest rate has taken her by surprise. She took half her loans at a fixed interest rate of 12 percent and the other half at a variable interest rate that started at 7 percent but is now up to 14 percent. Richardson says refinancing is complicated because Patrick Henry only takes loans that are not government-backed in any way. The school recommends refinancing immediately after graduation and suggests two options, but Richardson’s applications were rejected. Her five friends also tried and failed. She thinks it may be because their loan balances are too high.
Richardson recently got engaged to a fellow Patrick Henry grad. He has the same amount of student loan debt and works two full-time jobs to make the payments. “In a very strange way, it’s slightly comforting that both of us have been dealing with this and managing it,” she said. She thinks she would be too ashamed to bring her debt into a marriage with someone who didn’t understand the situation. “Both of us come from families where our parents were not able to support us financially,” she added.
The couple would like to have children “sooner rather than later. But I would say that, financially, neither of us sees that as being a possibility.”
Meanwhile, Christian colleges face an uncertain future due to both demographic shifts and financial considerations. Nelson believes the 2008 recession caused a psychological shift where Christian parents, facing financial uncertainty, steered their children to less expensive schools. “Now, just with the pandemic in the last two years, we’ve got to the point where only less than a quarter of our schools are breaking even from year to year,” he said.
And graduates who struggled with debt will likely steer their children toward a different path. The Rimestads are already encouraging their three young children not to go to college immediately after high school. They tell them “figure out what you want to do before you go in and make a house payment.”
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