Alliance: State Rep. Christina Hagan remembers being floored by an “unfathomable” $11,000 tuition bill in college.
It got much worse.
By the time she graduated in 2011, she owed $80,000. The man she went on to marry about a year later carries another $40,000 in debt and has yet to graduate. Each is 24.
“I was very determined and I failed to take all things into consideration,” said Hagan, a Republican representative for eastern Stark County. “It’s my fault.”
She talks openly of the financial mistakes she now believes she made while getting through college and her efforts now to make education a priority in the Statehouse.
“I don’t regret my education, but I sometimes regret my ability to be frugal when I was doing it,” she said.
Debt load exploding
Hagan and her husband, Adam Nemeth, are among the two-thirds of college graduates nationwide who typically take out loans to finance their educations. Over the past eight years, student loan debt has nearly tripled to $1.1 trillion and the percentage of 25-year-olds with student debt has exploded from 25 to 43 percent, according to the Project on Student Debt, an initiative of the nonprofit Institute for College Access and Success.
Increasingly, the loans are from banks and other lenders — loans that the Project on Student Debt advises students to avoid whenever possible, said Lauren Asher, president of the Institute of College Access and Success.
“Private loans are one of the riskier ways to pay for college,” she said, as they do not offer the repayment options and protections that come with federal loans.
Moreover, those other loans are harder to track, leaving the country with an incomplete picture of how much individual debt actually exists.
For example, the Project on Student Debt estimates the average debt nationwide is $26,600 and in Ohio, which has the seventh-highest average for student debt, it is $28,600.
But those numbers don’t include loans obtained by parents to finance their children’s education, such as home equity advances, nor does it reflect loans parents make to their children.
A post to the Beacon Journal’s Facebook page seeking young people with debt of $80,000 or more, like the Hagans, brought a rapid response from about a dozen people in the Akron area.
No matter what kind of debt they accrue, students or graduates might not buy a home, start a family, launch a business or save for their retirement, Asher said.
“It’s good advice to live like a student when you’re a student, but it’s also important that you get out of school and move on,” she said.
Hagan’s story starts out like many other students’.
Her parents made too much money for her to qualify for grants, which do not have to be paid back.
She also feels she did not get much advice on the financial aid process.
She barrelled headlong into financial aid on her own, the first in her family to go to college and the fourth child to leave the nest, a modest apartment above the family plumbing and heating business in rural Marlboro Township in Stark County.
Her father cautioned her about the higher sticker prices that come with private colleges, but Hagan was determined to pursue an education that reflected her deepest beliefs.
“At the time I was deciding about college, I was more interested in a Christian education than the cost,” she said.
She took some post-secondary enrollment courses at the two-year Stark State College while she was still in high school to get a jump-start on her education. She fit in time to be Alliance’s Carnation Festival Queen in her senior year.
In 2007, she enrolled at Malone College, a private Christian college in Canton whose motto is “Christ’s kingdom first.”
Malone’s sticker price is fairly moderate when compared to that of other private schools — the current cost for tuition, fees, room and board is $34,000 a year — but it was more than Christina could afford, she readily admits now.
By the time she enrolled at Malone, she already had moved out of her parents’ home and into a rental house owned by her parents with her brother. She wanted to be more independent.
Sidetracked by warning
Her education almost derailed during her first semester at Malone when a professor told her that a Christian could not be involved in politics, her life’s goal.
Angry, she transferred to the tax-supported University of Akron, where the total cost for tuition, fees, room and board is about $20,000 a year, more than one-third less than the sticker price for Malone.
However, she only stayed one semester. A Malone official persuaded her to come back to play tennis for a scholarship, Hagan said.
By the time it was all over about three years later, she had borrowed $60,000 in federal and private loans and another $20,000 from her parents.
“I was,” she recalled, “always kind of a busybody person and it was uncharted territory for me.”
She gave up a tennis scholarship at the end of her first year. Hagan declines to say how big it was, but acknowledges she wanted to spend her time elsewhere and was working while a student.
Making a situation worse
Malone spokeswoman Suzanne Thomas said that Hagan’s debt level is not common. While more than eight out of 10 Malone graduates leave with debt, Hagan made her situation worse because she did not keep the college’s financial aid office abreast of how much she was borrowing or from where, Thomas said in an email.
That left Malone officials “in the dark” that she may have been taking out too much debt.
However, at Malone and at other colleges and universities, it may be difficult to get a realistic picture of how much students or their parents actually borrow.
Thomas said the average Malone graduate leaves with $23,400, which is under both the state and national average. But Malone’s figure only captures the federal debt that the student took out while the student attended Malone.
The Project on Student Debt estimates the average Malone debt at $32,000 using a broader range of data. That includes numbers pulled from Peterson’s College Guide, which uses information from the Common Data Set, an annual survey completed by colleges and universities nationwide for publishers of college guides.
However, only about half of nonprofit colleges and universities complete the voluntary and unaudited CDS. “Many may have a disincentive for honest and full reporting,” according to the Project.
“Colleges that accurately calculate and report each year’s debt figures rightfully complain that other colleges may have students with higher average debt but fail to update their figures, under-report actual debt levels, or never report figures at all,” according to the Project.
Students at private, for-profit colleges tend to have higher debt than their colleagues at nonprofit schools like Malone. But the for-profits often choose not to report any numbers at all. And all numbers exclude federal PLUS loans taken out by parents on students’ behalf or personal loans that parents may extend to their offspring.
Still, as confusing as they may be, the Project on Student Debt statistics are the only ones showing cumulative debt for bachelor’s degree recipients nationwide.
Thomas stood behind the cost of a Malone education.
Through scholarships, grants and loans, “Many students are able to acquire a private, Christian university education at the same cost of a state university education,” she said.
Off to Columbus
By the time she was a senior, Hagan was so eager to get into politics that she lobbied for an appointment as the representative for the 50th House District in eastern Stark County, a post her father, John, had held from 2001 to 2008.
Hagan was 22, a senior at Malone, when she was chosen over two seasoned politicians for the seat vacated by Todd Snitchler of Lake Township, who became chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. Her appointment made her the youngest member of the 99-member House.
“I am feeling very blessed,” Hagan said at the time.
The next year, she was elected to the position. She since has reintroduced the so-called Heartbeat Bill, which would prohibit abortions if a heartbeat was detected, and two education-related pieces of legislation.
As vice chairman of the House’s Higher Education Reform Committee, she also travels the state to hear testimony from students and college and university officials about ways to reduce costs and debts.
She wants to make apprenticeships and career schools a bigger player in student choices.
“I like to tell people, ‘Know what you’re going to college for, or don’t go to college’ and you can be successful,” she said. “You don’t have to take on a debt to become successful.”
Working three jobs
Hagan is light years ahead of many of her colleagues when it comes to paying down her significant debt.
As a state representative, she makes about $61,000 a year — a healthy income for someone who is barely out of college.
Perhaps even better, that job only requires her to be in Columbus on weekdays during most of the year.
That leaves the weekends to wait tables at Carrabba’s Italian Grill in Jackson Township and to learn the ropes of her family’s heating and plumbing business. She likes to go out on jobs because they pay more than filing paperwork and answering phones in the office.
All told, she and her husband are able to pay about $1,500 a month on their debt.
Still, they are afraid to apply for a loan because of their debts. They are renting a home until they are debt-free. She shops at thrift stores. Her husband also works in the family business.
She’s keeping up a brisk pace and has paid down her debts to about $60,000.
She hopes they can wipe out their combined debt, now down to about $100,000, by the time they are 30, but allows that life events might intervene.
“At 18, I was a determined woman,” she said. “Now I’m paying the consequences.”
She said God will provide, but she can’t help but want to take care of things herself.
She would urge students not to do as she’s done and hopes her own cautionary tale can be a model for others.
Carol Biliczky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3729.