Sunday, March 24, 2013

My calling is to serve God...and my student loan debt

If you haven’t been paying attention, one of the cuts from the “sequester” was to funding for military tuition assistance programs.  One of my buddies from college is an army vet who has served multiple tours of duty. He was taking advantage of the tuition assistance program to complete a Master’s degree.  Without the financial assistance from the program, he will have to put his schooling on hold.

Thankfully for his sake, the Senate decided to reinstate the program, inserting a measure to re-fund the program as part of a bill to fund the federal government through the rest of the year. Now, it’s not a sure thing, because the Republican controlled House is unpredictable at best, but being that helping our military vets is politically expedient, my guess is that this measure will be enacted.

On some levels, I wasn’t really that sorry for my friend when I heard that he was losing funding for his education, for I thought he might get a taste of why myself and my fellow seminarians have been struggling with for years—trying to figure out how to pay for our own theological education.  I am fortunate that my school, Phillips Theological Seminary, is very affordable and recently even lowered tuition. Along with scholarships I received from the seminary, I have been awarded help from my denomination as well. For me, paying for my theological education hasn’t been nearly as hard as paying for life while I complete that education.

I am far from alone in this struggle. I know of fellow students who are serving two, three, even four churches in order to cobble together one full-time salary.  Once finished with seminary, despite having an advanced degree and a respected position as an ordained reverend, graduates are again piecing together multiple positions or even passing up church jobs because churches can’t pay them enough to repay their student loans (payments of which often comprise 10% of earned income).

I have to wonder what makes what my friend does in the military more valuable to our society than what I will do—working for a church, for a non-profit, in education, some of the above, all of the above? Who gets to make that decision? Why is it that my classmates and I have to take out loans upon loans (which are no longer subsidized thanks to the GOP) to pay for our education while an 18 year old can get college money for volunteering one weekend a month. Do you know how many weekends ministry students volunteer for churches!?

My friend and his fellow soldiers deserve the commendations they receive for serving, and they are not the only ones who serve our country. Anyone who invests their time and talents into a career that is about more than just money is invaluable to America.  I’m talking about teachers, medical service providers, child care workers, firefighters, police officers, artists, and of course pastors and non-profit community workers.  People like this are priceless pieces of our society—their value cannot be measured.

Unfortunately, our society has things backwards and values money-makers like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Warren Buffet over people who dedicate their lives to helping others. It shouldn’t be that way.  The Bible tells that we shouldn’t seek after money or possessions, but rather invest in that which last lifetimes.  As a society, we should be investing in people who dedicate their lives to serving others, who choose careers which will have an impact will last a lifetime—or in the case of minsters, an eternity.

That means more scholarships for people going into non-profit work, loan forgiveness for folks who choose careers that are about serving others, and grants for those who inspire us in ways that can’t be measured (pastors, artists, musicians).   That means more funding for higher education in general. 

In reality, this looks like what Democratic Congresswoman Karen Bass recently proposed in the “Student Loan Fairness Act of 2013.” This would create a “10-10” standard in which students would be required to pay 10% of their discretionary income for 10 years, after which the remaining debt would be forgiven.  It would also permanently cap federal student loan interest rates at 3.4%, suspend interest rates while borrowers are unemployed, and reward graduates for entering public service.

This stands in sharp contrast to what Republicans recently tried to do, in repealing the Student Loan Reform Law.  This law takes the loan processing out of the hands of banks and uses the savings to increase Pell Grant scholarships to the tune of $61 Billion. It also lowers monthly payments and shortened the debt forgiveness timeline.  Yet the GOP wanted to get rid of this.  Lest we forget VP candidate Paul Ryan wanted to double interest rates on student loans while giving tax break to millionaires.   

That is why I selfishly wanted my friend to lose his tuition assistance, for I thought he might see which political party really cares about the “little guy”—and perhaps that might influence his decision making next time he goes to the polls. That is why, what Congresswoman Bass proposed, and more, would begin to re-order towards a society which values service to others as invaluable.

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