Rushing: Why I needed student loans to go to school

Ty Rushing and his late mother during his eighth grade graduation.

Depending on your primary news sources, I’m either an “elitist” or one of the 429,000 Iowans saddled with a collective $13.3 billion in student loan debt, a portion of which will be forgiven by an executive order from President Joe Biden.

Biden announced Wednesday that Pell Scholarship recipients will be forgiven up to $20,000 in federal student loan debt — they must “demonstrate exceptional financial need” to receive one — and up to $10,000 for those from us who didn’t have it that hard.

Social media outrage at this was something, especially considering that many of them the loudest critics benefited from forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans in increments higher than Biden’s forgiving and in some cases hundreds of thousands of federal farm subsidies.

But instead of rehashing all of this, I’m going to talk about why I needed student loans and why it was so hard for me to pay off that debt.

I am the product of a single mother. My late mother raised me mostly alone. I say largely because my grandparents and maternal aunts and uncles also played a big part in my upbringing. I also sort of have three fathers, which I’ve never written about before.

Ty Rushing and his late mother at St. Stephen’s Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri.

My first stepfather, who I was raised to believe was my birth father, spent most of my childhood in and out of prison battling various addictions.

My second stepfather, whom my mother met at work during one of my first stepfather’s prison terms, already had three sons of his own. I wasn’t exactly receptive to this guy who I thought was trying to replace my “dad” either, although I rarely saw him outside of a visiting room. And don’t worry, my second stepdad and I are super cool now!

My final father figure is my birth father, who I met in my senior year of high school. We’re super good too and he’s the reason I went from being an ‘only child’ for 17 years to two little sisters that I love and cherish.

Ty and his sisters and brothers-in-law.

Obviously, my backstory is complicated, and trying to explain how I am related to someone through any of these three men requires a flowchart.

What does this have to do with student loans? Well, I’m getting there, but I had to show you where I’m from first.

Growing up, my mom typically had a full-time job, part-time job, and side hustles, including making and selling personalized gift baskets. Even so, we struggled to stay afloat for years, especially during her rare spells of unemployment.

There were times when we had to fill the bathtub with water before they turned it off due to a missed bill. In the winter we sometimes had to sleep in the same bed under numerous duvets because she couldn’t risk running up the gas bill as we didn’t have the money to pay her.

When she didn’t have a running car, we would walk to and from the grocery store a mile from our duplex to get what we needed — which is probably why I’m still so committed to the “one trip or die” mantra have been prescribed to bring groceries. We also went to the phone booth when our house phone was off.

Despite all of our financial woes, not going to college was never an option for me, and the value of an education was something my mom taught me. She was the only one of her five maternal and paternal siblings to graduate from high school. She also earned a few college credits while raising me, worked multiple jobs, and supported an incarcerated spouse.

When I was ready to go to college things were much better. She and my second stepfather bought a house together, he found a good job after their previous job fired them both, and my mother worked various full-time jobs and a part-time job in a department store.

Also, since I was/am a huge nerd, I was offered a scholarship to cover tuition for our local community college. I stayed home and my father (birth) bought my books during my freshman semester at Kansas City Kansas Community College (KCKCC).

Until the second semester I wrote for the school newspaper and worked the night shift in an office supplies store; I still have the knife scars and steel-toed boots to prove it.

Ty Rushing at the age of 19

When I transferred to the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC), I was debt-free from college because I stayed home during KCKCC and my scholarship covered tuition. I also paid for my books out of my own pocket after my first semester as I was working full time.

Then shit got real.

UMKC would not accept all of my credits from KCKCC, so I had to take a number of courses, which also meant paying for those courses. I had also moved out and had my own apartment, so paying for school and rent out of my own pocket with a full-time job wasn’t really feasible.

I took out a $2,000 federal student loan in the fall of 2008. I repaid this loan in May 2022 for two reasons: I maintained my Autopay salary during the federal hiatus in student loan repayments that began under President Donald Trump and continued under Biden, and those payments went direct to my loan and not only to interest.

Because of the same situation, I paid off a second of my four loans in June. In total, I borrowed $9,250 and still owe $7,000. I didn’t start paying off my loans until 2016 while working my second full-time journalism job because I just didn’t have any money to spare.

My first job as a journalist made me less than the warehouse job I worked at between the ages of 19 and 26. That was also after I paid the bill for terminating the lease on my apartment in the Kansas City suburbs and paying for a move to Newton, Iowa.

In Newton, Dustin Turner, a friend and former colleague, had access to a relative’s Costco account. We did the occasional Costco runs from Newton to West Des Moines, and I remember my jaw dropping when I found out that the people at Costco who were free samples were making more hourly than we were.

When I got my third journalism job in Sioux City, my cost of living was so much higher than it was in Sheldon — which is where my second and fourth journalism jobs were, and where I first started paying off my loans after years of ignoring calls and emails from Nelnet – that I had to look for a second job.

Somewhat ironically, I became a free trial person—retail clerk was the official title—at Sioux City’s Sam’s Club, Costco’s main competitor. I’ve also done some freelance writing assignments.

I remember a horrible day when I had a freelance assignment and had to work both jobs. I made it, but it sucked.

I’m not writing this out of a quest for sympathy — I’m fine these days and this is the internet and we’re all monsters here — but to give the student credit crisis a face and a voice that doesn’t just apply to me or my particular circumstances . The Obamas, too, only paid off their loans shortly before moving into the White House.

There are millions of people like me who couldn’t afford to get an education without going into debt, and as strange as it sounds, I’ve been trying to get myself into a manageable debt situation.

I went to KCKCC instead of the University of Kansas (KU) because I couldn’t afford to go to my dream school. I switched to UMKC because it made more financial sense and it was easier to commute between my home, my job at camp, and the campus, which were in three different counties in two states. To put it in mascot terms, it was cheaper to be a kangaroo than a jayhawk.

Biden’s announcement was a turning point for many people I know. My younger sister will be debt free by 40, which is remarkable considering her debt for her bachelor’s degree was “enough to buy a nice house,” according to my father (the biological one). A friend who racked up nearly $80,000 in loan debt during multiple college attempts before finding her calling as a nurse will be able to lift a significant chunk of that burden.

I can meet my payments for my wedding and maybe even get a house after living in an apartment for almost 15 years. Of course those were things I had to do eventually, but having more financial flexibility to do it is more than a relief.

So, yes, I’m pretty happy with Biden’s leadership decision, but I’m also just an elitist from Kansas City with three fathers who couldn’t afford college and their career experience as a journalist– based primarily in rural Iowa – has recently surpassed his experience as a warehouse worker; a senior sales specialist if you want to work technically.

by Ty Rushing

To contact Senior Editor Ty Rushing for tips or story ideas, email him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter @rushthewriter

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