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I’m 43 and still have $25,000 left to pay in student loans — but now I have to take out more debt to stay in my field. This system is ridiculous.

Headshot of Meghan Taff.Meghan Taff is a physical therapist who has returned to school for her doctorate degree in order to continue practicing in her field.

Courtesy of Meghan Taff

  • Meghan Taff has a master’s in physical therapy and has worked in the field for nearly 20 years.
  • She’s paid off 75% of her student loans, but must return to school and add up to $15,000 more debt.
  • Taff is very frustrated about the student-loan forgiveness lawsuits and the student-debt system.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Meghan Taff, a 43-year-old physical therapist from St. Louis, Missouri, about her student-loan debt. It’s been edited for length and clarity.

I attended a five-and-a-half-year physical-therapy program at St. Louis University in Missouri, where I’m from. When all was said and done, I came out with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree and a little more than $100,000 in federal student-loan debt. 

Since then, I’ve paid off over $75,000 and can barely work because it’s been hard to find a job without a doctorate in physical therapy.

Despite nearly 20 years of experience and a master’s degree, I have to return to school. I’ll probably add $15,000 on top of the $25,000 I still owe in loans, and it’s super frustrating.

A physical-therapy salary is hard to live on

I’ve been out of school since 2004 and made $35,000 at my first job out of college, ProRehab (now Athletico). I’d work 45 hours a week, though I’d come to work early and stay up late to finish my notes.

In 2016, I found a job in Menlo Park, California, that combined working with endurance athletes and physical therapy. I moved to San Francisco, where opportunities were plentiful, and ended up as a physical therapist with the medical group Crossover Health. 

At Crossover Health I made $62 an hour and worked 32 hours a week with one day to see private clients. At my private sessions, I’d make $150 to $250 for home sessions and triathlon coaching.

Then COVID-19 hit. The company went virtual and my job eventually went away. In 2021, my husband and I moved to San Diego to escape San Francisco’s high cost of living.

I’ve been paying my student loans this entire time

I’ve never defaulted on my loans, even through the COVID-19 pandemic. One of my student loans was forgiven through the Perkins Loan system after I spent five years in the profession, but that was only $5,000. Since I bought a house after graduating from physical-therapy school, I’ve never been able to accumulate savings because of my mortgage and student loans.

I could fall back on my husband, since he’s wanted to help me pay off my student loans, but it concerns me. I’ve always said that this was before I met him, and I don’t feel comfortable with him paying it back — I guess because of Midwestern pride or stubbornness.  

Unfortunately the whole Biden student-loan debt relief plan, which cancels up to $20,000, is going underwater. Even though I was only eligible to cancel $10,000 from my debt, it was going to be super helpful, but I’m not holding my breath that it’s going to happen. 

I’m frustrated that this is where I’m at when I’m 43. If given the choice, I wouldn’t go back to school. 

I applied to multiple clinics before I moved to San Diego and was told that without a doctorate of physical therapy, my application wouldn’t move forward in the recruitment process. Now I’ve returned to school and it’s just ridiculous.

We have to complete 30 hours of continuing education every two years, so it’s not like I haven’t been learning things or immersing myself in research. It’s super frustrating and there are a lot of folks who are leaving the physical-therapy profession, but my hand is forced. 

I’ve looked into other options, like doing more nonclinical work. There are some folks who go into selling software to customers, especially as it relates to medical programs and documentation systems, but these entities that folks are transitioning into aren’t good fits for me.

I started the doctorate program at the University of Montana on January 2.  I’ve paid $1,950 for the first doctorate semester and the costs rack up, constantly changing the more credit hours that I take. Tuition for the entire program costs $8,500.

In hindsight, I would’ve slapped my 17-year-old self and told her not to go into physical therapy

As much as I love my job and helping my clients, I would’ve told my younger self to go into technology. Even though I’m not super techie, I would’ve found a way to succeed. 

I missed out on a lot by going to a more expensive school. I wasn’t able to study abroad and had to live at home and work. Since I didn’t get a chance to do all these things in college, I wanted to actually live after I graduated. I wanted to do more with my money than stock it all up and pay off student loans, so I made it a priority to travel overseas.

Traveling didn’t help, I’m sure, because here I am, 20 years later, still with a massive amount of debt. Then again, I’ve had great memories and seen a lot of places. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. 

Most of us are working hard to pay off the student-loan debt

Not everybody is born with a silver spoon in their mouth. The thing that’s most annoying about the student-loan forgiveness lawsuits is how members of the GOP are fighting loan forgiveness. They think other people are freeloaders, but I’ve been paying the entire time. No one is asking for a free ride. I’ve paid back a majority of my loans, but $10,000 forgiveness would be helpful.

That’s the most daunting thing. Folks believe the hype and the politicization of what it means to take out student loans, but I’ve been a law-abiding citizen. I’m not doing anything wrong. I’d just like a little bit of help.

Read the original article on Business Insider