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College debts that once seemed to make sense

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“You can go to any college you want.”

“You won’t have to pay for college.”

“You’ll have lots of scholarships and financial aid.”

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These are just a few of the things my parents said throughout my childhood. I am a second-generation U.S.-born Latina. Growing up in the suburbs of Fort Worth, I was a straight-A student in Advanced Placement classes, with many civic activities on my risumi.

At 17, I never could have dreamed that my parents’ promises were lies.

A decade-plus later, I, like many millennials, have more than $100,000 in student loan debt, most of which can be directly attributed to my parents’ unfortunate placement smack in the middle of the middle class and the fact that our family was uneducated about financing higher education.

My parents — a nurse and a police officer — were the first in their families to attend college, though Dad dropped out and joined the Marine Corps during Vietnam. Both baby boomers who attended state universities, they were ill-prepared for their two public-school-educated daughters to attend private universities that left us drowning in debt.

Sure, they had saved. They bought us U.S. savings bonds that matured over time. But those savings bonds and the scholarships I earned didn’t cover even a year’s tuition at my small private college in Boston, much less room and board.

Despite not having the means to pay for the colleges we chose, my parents truthfully answered questions on our financial-aid applications and co-signed our loans from Citibank when our schools determined that their modest means made my sister and me ineligible for any significant financial aid or subsidized federal loans. I remember thinking as a teenager, as I filled out an application on the monstrous desktop computer in our home — via a dial-up Internet connection — “What on earth does this stuff mean?”

Looking back, it’s easy to say that my parents failed. They should have asked more questions and sought counsel. More important, they should never have co-signed the loans or allowed their financial information in our aid applications because they had no intention, nor means, of paying for our pricey educations.

In August 2000 I moved halfway across the country to attend a school no one in my family had ever heard of. I went to work on and off campus and juggled eight jobs through college, sometimes working two and even four jobs a month. Despite this income, and the heavy load of classes I took to graduate a year early, I left Boston with nearly $100,000 in debt.

Nine years, two degrees and one military commission later, I curse the lack of assistance my parents received in preparing me for school debt.

When asked about leaving Texas for a private college back East, I tell people that it was a great experience but that, from a financial perspective, I should have attended a public school close to home. Doing so would have long ago allowed me to buy a home and upgrade from the 21-year-old Volvo I have driven since graduation. I refer to my diplomas as my mortgage only half-jokingly. And while I enjoy public service, some days I think of what it would be like to run my own business rather than being committed to serving for 10 years in the hopes of having my student loan debt forgiven.

This month Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-Mich.) introduced the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012. It holds that an educated populace benefits all of society, not just the individual student. My military experience has taught me the value of diverse backgrounds and educations among my fellow airmen.

Clarke’s bill proposes forgiving as much as $45,520 of eligible student-loan debt after new borrowers have made 120 payments — equivalent to 10 percent of their discretionary income for 10 years — or any outstanding debt for those whose loans predate enactment if the borrower has already made 120 payments in the past 10 years. Even better, the forgiven amount will not count as income, so debtors need not fear paying higher income taxes for 2012.

This legislation would be an impetus for economic growth by helping indebted college graduates get out of the renting cycle, build a small business, or stop putting off major life decisions such as starting a family.

It might help parents of young professionals sleep better at night, knowing that they would not lose their homes should their children’s student loans default.

Melissa M. Horton is a graduate of Simmons College in Boston and Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law. She served with the Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps before practicing law in Texas.

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