Helenan Misty Hauer works days as a water rights specialist with the Department of Natural Resource Conservation and evenings in the deli at Wal-Mart. By the time she beds down for the night, she has usually put in a 16-hour day.
It’s a schedule she’s stuck to for the past six months, and one necessary to make the payments on her $62,000 in student loans.
So far, Hauer said her degree helped with her promotion at the DNRC, but hasn’t proved useful during her search for a second job.
“A little bit of me kind of regrets going into so much debt for something that feels unused,” Hauer said.
And Hauer isn’t alone. According to the September report “A Mountain of Debt” by the Montana Organizing Project and the Alliance for a Just Society, 64 percent of Montana graduates in 2012 had student debt. Those who carried debt owed an average of $27,475.
Sheena Rice, senior organizer with the Montana Organizing Project, said the debt keeps graduates from putting that money back into the state economy and sometimes drives graduates out of Montana to find higher-wage jobs elsewhere.
“We’re not really seeing any solutions were just seeing an education system that’s becoming more and more subsidized by debt,” Rice said.
Hauer didn’t graduate from a Montana college or university. While living in Lincoln for 15 years, Hauer took classes online with the University of Phoenix. She graduated in 2012 with a major in small business management.
At first, the monthly payment on her loans was just under $200. Then after her income rose last year, the payment nearly doubled and Hauer had to apply for forbearance, which allowed her to stop making monthly payments until February 2015.
When that time comes around, Hauer plans to apply for a pay-as-you-go option that would require her to submit all her pay stubs from her jobs to her loan servicer, but would lower her monthly payments back to the $200 range.
Hauer also has other credit card debt she’s working to pay off, but said it would help her situation if she there were more incentives for paying student loans on time that could lower her interest rate over time. Maybe then she wouldn’t have to give up all her free time.
Rice said the Montana Organizing Project is working toward some proposals to bring to the 2015 Legislature. She said it plans to call for more state investment in higher education. It is also examining the feasibility of Montana creating a model similar to North Dakota, where the state refinances student loans and gets them down to five percent, Rice said.
Locally, the Strike Debt Helena movement has held workshops for people who are struggling with student debt, medical debt and housing debt.
Jan Siemers, a local who is spearheading the movement, said the workshops featured panels or presented information to help people suffering from debt.
But only about 10 to 15 people attended each workshop, Siemers said.
“People don’t like to talk about debt,” she said.
Right now, participants of the Strike Debt group are reading a manual created by the national Strike Debt movement on solutions for debt problems, Siemers said.
Sheena Rice said that while the organizing project is fighting for state solutions, some work needs to be done on the federal level as well. Meanwhile, graduates like Hauer will continue to put in overtime to make ends meet.
“There’s not a lot of options right now,” Rice said.