Moneybox

What It’s Like to Be Single in Your 60s With $233,921 in Student Debt

The story of Jack Connolly, a high school English teacher from Coal Township, Pennsylvania.

60-year-old man with a beard and glasses
Olivia Fields

This is part of Debt Nation, a series of interviews with people about how student loans have shaped their lives. Read the rest here.

Education: Bachelor’s in psychology and English, master’s degree in education for reading instruction
Current job: High school English teacher
Household income: $30,000
Relationship status: Single (divorced) with a 35-year-old son and a 28-year-old daughter
Peak student debt: $233,921
Current student debt: $233,921

It started on Jan. 10, 2008. I was working for a local hospital, making decent money. Then the board of directors decided to sell the hospital to a for-profit corporation. I got called into the boss’s office, who said, “We’re letting you go. You’ve got 15 minutes to clean out your desk.” I thought, No problem. I’ve lost jobs before. But this was the beginning of the Great Recession. Nine months, 400 job applications, and 17 interviews later, I landed a part-time minimum wage job at the local Macy’s working on the loading dock.

At the time, I was coaching a high school debate team, and more than a few of the other coaches said, “You should become a teacher.” So I applied to King’s College, and they accepted me into their teaching program. I maxed out my student loans because I needed money to survive. The federal loan program allows you to take out more than the cost of tuition, so that way I could take care of tuition and rent and have money left over for gas, food, medicine, things like that. Then my daughter went to school, and I had to take out parental loans. That was a chunk of change too.

I was in the middle of my master’s program and feeling kind of disillusioned. So I applied to a number of schools in California. I got accepted by a really little Christian graduate school called St. Mary’s, about 20 miles east of San Francisco. Unfortunately, I got jerked around a bit. A couple of weeks before I went out there, they called and said, “We’re suspending the master’s education program for this school year. You’re the only one who applied, and we can’t run a master’s program for just one person.” So we went through all the programs they had, and they led me down the garden path to one called the Master of Arts in Leadership. They even gave me a bit of a scholarship, but I still had to take out student loans.

The program turned out to be a total disaster. It was really, really strange. I realized their idea of leadership is just Marxism with a fresh coat of paint. They had this thing called a marginal performance letter. It’s usually given to a student at the end of a course, and the letter says, “Yes, you passed the course, but the professor was not happy with your academic performance.” You get one marginal performance letter, that’s kind of a warning shot. You get two, they put you on academic probation. You get a third, they dismiss you.

When I got three of those letters, I had no choice but to drive back to Pennsylvania. I had no job, very little money, no place to stay, and California’s expensive. It was two semesters, so I’m guessing I accrued about $21,000. I had to live in my car for two months until I could reenroll in King’s. When I finally managed to finish my master’s degree, I was fortunate enough to find this job at a high school where I am now. I’m in my fifth year of teaching.

When these loans first came due, the original lender wanted me to give a monthly payment of $2,200. I don’t even gross $2,200 a month. That’s when I had to take out the loan consolidation, and it’s an income-driven repayment plan, so I’m paying $202 a month, and that will continue until I either get a better job or I pay off the loan. But at $202 a month, it would take me 83 years.

When I was growing up, they encouraged you: Go to school, get an education. Education is the magic bullet. I don’t regret going to school, but I can’t understand why the education I had in 1977 only cost me $28,000 for four years; now I owe about $230,000 for graduate school. I don’t understand why college is so expensive. My first degree was from the University of Notre Dame, and that was in 1981, and I finished with only $3,500 in student loans. I paid those off like two years after I graduated.

I live with my son. I’m grateful that he lets me live with him. He has student loans; my daughter has student loans. My kids understand my situation, and I understand theirs. My debt hasn’t really affected my relationship with them, but in terms of my social or romantic relationships, oh, dear God. There’s no way I could afford dating. Just dinner and a movie, that’ll run you 100 bucks. I can’t pay that kind of money, you know? And part of it also is I’m 60 years old. I know I am well past my sell-by date. I’m not what women are looking for, especially because I’m a teacher. I’ll be honest, I’m making $30,000, and that’s $10,000 a year less than what I was making 12 years ago.

Retirement, what’s that? It’s never going to happen. Even when I was making $40,000 a year, it took me three years just to save up $4,000 in my retirement account. When I lost that job and couldn’t find another one right away, I had to cash out that retirement account just so I could pay the mortgage and put food on the table. The loans are always in the back of my mind. I’m always thinking about: How do I pay my bills? How do I cut corners? I just purchased a car because my old car, which was a 2004 Dodge Neon, died. I had to go through one of those buy-here-pay-here dealerships that really jack you up in terms of interest.

I have not missed a payment, but, well, here’s an example of how student loans affect my life. A few months ago, I made a payment on a Friday. The payment was due on the 12th, so I made my payment on the 11th. For some reason, the bank debited my account twice for the same payment, which meant it overdrew my account and I got slapped with an overdraft fee. I called the bank, and they said, “OK. We’ll reverse the overdraft charge, and we’ll see what we can do about refunding you the amount you overpaid, but it’s going to take us 10 business days.” In the meantime, my account remained overdrawn, which meant I had no money to live on for seven days.

Since my loans are held by the federal government, they just applied a six-month forbearance on my account because of the pandemic, for which I am glad. But again, six months down the road, what do I do? Am I still going to be eligible for my income-based repayment plan? What if the private Catholic school where I teach goes out of business? I don’t think there are too many schools that want to hire a 60-year-old teacher. It’s not exactly where I thought I would be at age 60, you know?