Zealotry, Embarrassment, and Disgust – The 2013 Story of the NJEA

One of the concurrently great and not-so-great things about New Jersey politics is the presence of the New Jersey Educators’ Association (NJEA). They’re great because I believe a well-run, dedicated statewide union for educators can really work in the best interests of teachers, schoolchildren, and parents combined. They’re not-so-great because the NJEA is an anti-progress, angry group of zealots who only care about attacking Republicans and standing in the way of the types of solutions that help the very poorest schoolchildren achieve greater academic heights. I often wonder what the NJEA has against poor kids, but Lord knows they’d lie if ever asked.

The only Governor in New Jersey history who tells it like it is to the NJEA

The only Governor in New Jersey history who speaks truth to the NJEA

Anyway, if you live in New Jersey and of clear political mind, then you already know that the NJEA is a group of zealots that many of their own members no longer want to be associated with these days. The impetus for writing this entry isn’t just to rehash how sad of an organization the NJEA is today, but rather to react to a recent report about their spending habits during the current election cycle. Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind (Ms. Waters is a Democrat, by the way, who is a strong advocate of student achievement over all else) posted a short blog entry recently that referenced a few other sources regarding reports on the NJEA’s political spending. Most notably, she links to NJ Spotlight and their recent article which cites the NJEA’s spending on the current election at $13 million. A quote from the NJ Spotlight article:

The New Jersey Education Association’s political juggernaut keeps on rolling. With the latest campaign finance reports in, the teachers union has now topped $13 million in spending on the state elections next Tuesday, easily beating all other special-interest spending and almost matching Gov. Chris Christie’s campaign itself, according to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission. The bulk of the money is out of its super PAC, Garden State Forward, which has been active for not only Democratic challenger Barbara Buono, with two television ads on her behalf so far, but also focused on helping Democratic candidates in a handful of legislative races that are considered tight.

How pathetic? How disgusting? What an embarrassment to those “members” of the union that are either middle-of-the-road politically or who fall right of center. For those of you reading this entry who are not familiar with the New Jersey system – each teacher in the state has to is essentially forced to join the NJEA. Sure, you can choose not to be a member, but even if you’re not a member you still have to pay a percentage of the annual dues (I hear it’s 90%) on the basis that – as a teacher – you still receive the benefits of union negotiations.

It’s a modern day racket system.

After reading the NJ Spotlight story on the NJEA’s unbelievably partisan political spending and adding that knowledge with all of the anti-academic achievement actions of the NJEA over the last few years, it makes one wonder what these folks really want for our kids. Sure, you can read their websites and other forms of propaganda and come away feeling all happy and nice. And yes, you can listen to their verbal propaganda and videos and think, “Wow! What a great organization for New Jersey!” But when it comes right down to it, after looking at the reality of the partisan, biased political spending for this organization you have to be embarrassed. You have to be embarrassed that this is the sorry organization that New Jersey has negotiating for its teachers.

Becoming a teacher is a noble and worthwhile profession. However, the NJEA as an organization is not worth of its own membership. The NJEA as an organization is a failure. It should be disbanded so that New Jersey’s long, statewide nightmare can come to an end.

After All Of These Years, This Is What The Finish Line Looks Like

Thank you all so much for the kind words and praise that you’ve sent me via text messages, Facebook comments, Facebook messages, e-mails, discussions on your blogs, and phone calls over the last few days. Since I posted that my student loans were officially repaid, I’ve been reminded what a great group of people that I’m lucky enough to call my family and friends (both old and new). During the online celebration, some of you asked whether I had official confirmation on my payment being received and processed by the student loan company. On Monday, the answer was “no” because it takes a few days for the payment to show up on MOHELA’s website. However, today I’m proud to share the screenshot of the zero balance due on my loan. Take a look:

And that's the end of my student loans.

And that’s the end of my student loans.

And not only is there nothing due on the loan, but it looks like MOHELA actually owes me 15 cents! Ha ha!

In July 2006 I began repaying $120,603.31 in student loan debt. This debt was comprised of $106,070.00 in loan principal, $12,434.58 in capitalized interest, and $2,098.73 in closing and refinancing fees. I made the final payment on this debt in August 2013. My lenders included the United States Department of Education’s (USED) Perkins loan program, the USED’s subsidized and unsubsidized Direct Loan programs, the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority’s NJCLASS program, CitiBank, and the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority (the USED sold my loan to MOHELA in April 2012). In total, I paid $149,455.12 to these lenders including $120,603.31 in consolidated principal and $28,851.81 in interest. You can read my entire student loan repayment story on JerseySmarts.com.

Major Student Loan Announcement: My Student Loans Are Fully Repaid!

When I was interviewed by USA Today about my student loan debt back in June 2006, I was so unsure of my financial position that I couldn’t even give them the correct total for my loans. That article cites a total of $116 thousand worth of student loans; believe it or not, I was about $5 thousand too low. All I was sure of was that I owed a substantial amount of money and it seemed there was no way to quickly repay the loans.

Before I started an aggressive repayment plan in December 2009 it seemed like today would be impossible to realize. Think about the situation that I was faced with (and remember that many current large dollar student loan borrowers are still in similar situations): How could a guy manage to repay approximately $121 thousand in student loan debt with a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in Public Policy? Further, how could a guy repay such an astronomical figure much quicker than the 25 and 30 year repayment plans his lenders put him on? Worse yet, how could anyone who worked at a nonprofit organization, did not rely on outside financial support, did not live at home, paid all of their own bills (on-time), lived in the most expensive state in the union, and who felt a moral obligation to annually donate at least 10% of his income achieve this goal? To say that the odds were against this day coming as soon as it did is an understatement! This goal was nearly impossible for anyone to achieve.

It's over!

And yet this day still arrived. As of this morning, my student loans are fully repaid. No more principal balance to report. No more interest versus principal calculations to make with each payment. No more wondering how much longer I’m going to make $2,500 per month payments (this was the amount of my average monthly payment in 2013). That’s $2,500 each month that I can now use towards what it should have been used for since July 2006: saving for retirement, investing in the market, investing in my continued professional and academic development, and purchasing a permanent residence.

During my last “major announcement” post back in December 2010 I happily reported that I was done repaying the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (NJHESAA). The NJHESAA’s series of smaller NJCLASS loans were – after consolidation – one of the two major student loans that I was obligated to repay after graduating from a master’s degree program at Rutgers back in 2006. The other major series of smaller loans – also consolidated into a single loan – were from the United States Department of Education (USED) and their Direct Loans program. Ultimately, the USED sold my loan to the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority (MOHELA) – the lender that received my final payment earlier today.

I also had loans from two smaller sources including $1,400 from the USED’s federal Perkins loan program through Monmouth University and $7,000 (plus an additional $1,071.52 in interest) from Citibank’s student loan program.

Just as I reported after paying off my NJHESAA loan, here are the stats as they pertain to repaying my USED/MOHELA loan (these figures include both the amount of the loan and the capitalized interest; also, these are my figures and may be a few pennies or a dollar or two off from what the USED/MOHELA keeps on file).

Freshman Year of College (1999 – 2000): $2,639.27
Sophomore Year of College (2000 – 2001): $3,518.71
Junior Year of College (2001 – 2002): $5,529.88
Summer Session (2002): $0.00
Senior Year of College (2002 – 2003): $5,529.86
Undecided Graduate Semester (Fall 2003): $9,759.06
Part-Time Graduate Semester (Spring 2004): $0.00
Graduate Year One (2004 – 2005): $19,156.45
Summer Session (2005): $6,852.91
Graduate Year Two (2005 – 2006): $6,034.01
Total USED Debt at Consolidation (Plus $205.04 Refinancing Fee): $59,020.15

Total Principal Paid During the Life of the Loan: $57,575.00
Total Interest Paid During the Life of the Loan (Includes Capitalized Interest): $1,445.15 + $14,518.11
Total Fees Paid During the Life of the Loan: $205.04

Total Amount Repaid: $73,743.30

The list above shows the various USED loans that I consolidated into the final $59,020.15 loan that I began repaying in 2006. If you study that list above, there are three lines that will probably bounce out and hit you – my summer session in 2002, my part-time graduate semester in 2004, and my first year in graduate school as a full-time student in 2004 – 2005. The first two of these line items probably stand out because I did not incur any USED loans during those semesters. Why didn’t I take out any loans, you ask? Simple. As an undergraduate, the USED would not advance me any loans if I was a part-time student – that eliminated me from potentially getting a loan during the summer of 2002 (I made up the difference from NJHESAA that summer). And in the spring of 2004 I was still deciding if I wanted to apply to the Rutgers graduate program where I was a non matriculated student. Again, being a part-time student didn’t allow me to take out any loans from the USED.

Of course, I did wind up applying to the Rutgers program on a full-time basis and that first full-time year of graduate school is the other line item that stands out in the list above. This line item stands out because it is so much higher than the rest of the line items at a whopping $19,156.45. What in the world could I need that much money for in a student loan?! Again, the answer is somewhat simple: somewhere along the line I figured out that the USED would advance loan funds to pay for my “living expenses” while I was going to school full-time.

If there is one thing that I can point to that inflated my total student loan debt more than anything else it would be the ability to add my “living expenses” to my student loan requests. Even though I worked part-time at two different jobs during my undergraduate years and full-time during my graduate years (in addition to owning and operating a small business), I still included my living expenses in my student loan requests. Those living expenses including my monthly rent payments, cell phone payments, food money, automobile payments, and Lord knows what else. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you the exact amount of my student loans were allocated to these living expenses, but let me put it in perspective this way…

Pretty much all of the tuition I was charged during graduate school was paid either by me, my family, or scholarships. You read that correctly – I did not need to take out student loans to pay for my tuition at Rutgers. In other words, if you look at the list above and add up the line items titled Graduate Year One (2004 – 2005), Summer Session (2005), and Graduate Year Two (2005 – 2006), then you’ll have the total dollar amount of student loans that I requested for reasons other than tuition. After doing the math, you can see that this amount equals $32,043.37. Just to be clear, of the $120,720 that I took out in student loans, at least $32,043.37 were for expenses other than tuition. I won’t set this number in stone as the definitive total amount of loan funds that I received for non-tuition expenses because I also applied for and received living expenses (primarily rent costs) from the NJHESAA’s NJCLASS program, too.

However, to estimate that approximately a third ($40,420) of my total student loan debt was for living expenses and not tuition would be a pretty good guess. Pretty frightening, I know.

And yet today still arrived. From an above-the-fold cover story in USA Today in June 2006 to fully repaying my NJHESAA loan in December 2010, to a nice mention in an online story on USA Today in May 2011, to the milestone of having repaid $100,000 in principal, to today – it’s been an incredible ride. If you’ve been following my student loan story from the beginning, then I offer my heartfelt thanks for your patronage and willingness to read my repayment story to the end. For those of you who have added comments to these blog entries from time to time, I thank you for being a part of the conversation. If you’re one of the many folks who’ve e-mailed me saying that I inspired you to take a more aggressive stance in your own student loan repayment, then I wish you luck.

Quickly and efficiently repaying a student loan is possible; even if that student loan is $120,603.31 on day one and you wind up paying an additional $28,851.81 in interest over the life of your repayment. The great truth that I learned over these past few years is that if you want to do something, then you will find a way to achieve it. In other words, no one can stop you – except you.

And if you’re trying to repay an enormous student loan, then contact me and share your story. Good luck!

In July 2006 I began repaying $120,603.31 in student loan debt. This debt was comprised of $106,070.00 in loan principal, $12,434.58 in capitalized interest, and $2,098.73 in closing and refinancing fees. I made the final payment on this debt in August 2013. My lenders included the United States Department of Education’s (USED) Perkins loan program, the USED’s subsidized and unsubsidized Direct Loan programs, the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority’s NJCLASS program, CitiBank, and the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority (the USED sold my loan to MOHELA in April 2012). In total, I paid $149,455.12 to these lenders including $120,603.31 in consolidated principal and $28,851.81 in interest. You can read my entire student loan repayment story on JerseySmarts.com.

Most of the Blogs Out There Are Not Written for Those With Crushing Debt Burdens

Even though this is probably no surprise to anyone out there – I read a lot. From books to magazines to newspapers to websites to blogs to academic reports to you name it. I find myself reading a great deal of varied content on a weekly basis. Right now, for example, I’m reading a book about post-World War II educational curriculum development in America as well as the ninth book in the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind. I’m also halfway through a book about how approaches to best educating students has changed in the last 20+ years.

But aside from all of these books and reports I really like to read blogs written by everyday people who accomplish extraordinary feats. I have a small cadre of such blogs fed into my RSS feeder. Some of these blogs are written by people who have lost tremendous amounts of weight, others are written by people who have gone from a skinny physique or a chubby physique to winning bodybuilding competitions. Some of the blogs are written by guys who were introverted and wound up changing their lives to become social butterflies. Other blogs are written by people who have managed to travel around the world for an incredibly small amount of money before they were a certain age.

I don’t necessarily identify with any of these blogs or their writers because none of them really speak to my direct experience. In other words, at one point I lost 125 pounds so I already know how to accomplish that goal, I’ve never been an introverted person so I don’t need tips or pointers on how to get out there and meet people, and I’m not the biggest traveler so those lessons really don’t apply to my life. What I do enjoy about these blogs is reading the sense of accomplishment that these people achieve when they meet their goals. As someone who has met (and continues to meet) certain goals in my life, I understand how great that sense of accomplishment feels.

It’s awesome.

However, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in many of these blogs. All of these amateur writers are missing commentary that speaks to a growing number of individuals in our country. Let me be more direct: not one of these bloggers, these self-professed self-help gurus, these accomplished weight loss success stories, these people who have overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, etc. have accomplished their major goals and retired a tremendous amount of debt.

While these bloggers build their own ego and create their own hype because they lost [insert large number here] pounds or because they traveled to [insert large number here] countries, you can’t find someone who has managed accomplish a major goal while saddled with a tremendous non-mortgage debt burden. And it’s like this all over the blogosphere. For example, I read a lot of guy blogs (those blogs focused on items of interest to guys in my age group). These blogs range in variety and type from guys who spend a lot of their time working out and talking about the best techniques for working out to guys who claim to have a lot of social success to guys who manage to weave the fundamentals of their faith throughout their daily lives.

All of the writers that I read on guy blogs eventually wind up writing an entry about how their readers can become better at [insert whatever here]. Well, the impetus for writing this entry was a piece of “advice” that I’ve seen pop up over and over again on these guy blogs. And that same piece of advice pops up on all of the blogs that I read – not just guy blogs. That piece of advice is that if you want to be the absolute best at [insert whatever here], then you absolutely cannot have any debt.

That’s right. I’ve read bloggers saying that if you want to lose weight, you can’t have any debt because you need the freedom to be able to spend as much time as possible working out instead of being stuck working one, two, or more jobs. I’ve read bloggers saying that if you want to increase the size of your social circle, you can’t have any debt because if you don’t have excess funds to do new and exciting things, how can you expand the number and type of people that you’ll interact with? I’ve even read bloggers who say that if you want to meet the type of girl that you think you’re most compatible with, then you can’t have debt because that debt weighs on you mentally and restricts your ability to see yourself with a successful girlfriend, fiancée, or wife.

But here’s the question that prompted me to write this entry…

Who doesn’t have some type of debt? I don’t mean that as a matter-of-fact type of question with the expectation that your response would be, “I guess everyone has some type of debt.” That’s not what I’m going for here. Think of the real answer to that question – who doesn’t have some type of debt? Well, you have independently wealthy people or those who come from tremendous wealth and don’t need to pay their own way through life. Okay. You also have those people who have worked their butts off and earned enough money such that they don’t have to carry any debt. Okay. And you know what? You might even find that people who are the exact opposite of these wealthy people also don’t have any debt. That is to say that those people who never took on college debt yet still didn’t graduate with a degree or those people who just graduated from high school (or not) and wound up living in their parents’ basement; the habitual underachievers out there.

Is there any other type of person who doesn’t have some type of debt? I really can’t think of any, but I would suggest that there should be a fourth category – those people who choose to write a blog focusing in depth about their success at achieving a goal other than retiring debt! After spending a few years reading some of these blogs I’ve come to the conclusion that people out there who accomplish what they believe are great things are not saddled with a tremendous amount of non-mortgage debt. They don’t have a significant amount of consumer debt and they don’t have a significant amount of student loan debt. They have that freedom that I referenced above – the freedom to not be tied down to one, two, or more jobs. And with that freedom comes the ability and flexibility to spend more of their time losing weight or working out or hanging out at local clubs or spending their time learning new hobbies or traveling around the world, etc.

They don’t know what it’s like to work an 8am to 6pm job with an hour commute wrapped on either side of that workday plus spending an hour each morning before you leave for the office working on freelance projects and several hours at night when you get home at night working a second or third job. And I specifically wrote that last sentence to begin with “they don’t know what it’s like” because that’s the problem that I’ve been having with a lot of the blogs that I read: the writers just don’t understand how self-righteous and, frankly, alienating they sound when they write their entries.

And here’s the prime example that I know so many of you out there have probably seen before… How many of you have ever read a weight loss blog or a weight training blog that condemns those who say they don’t have the free time to work out? Usually, the writer says that this is just an excuse and that you can make time to lose weight or work out if you really want to…

If you really want to? Really?

Are you fucking kidding me?

The only person who would write such an ignorant comment is someone who don’t wake up at 5am (exhausted) and then fall into bed at midnight after working the entire day to earn money in an effort to retire debt. Who would tell someone who keeps this schedule 5, 6, or 7 days each week that they are lazy or that they are the cause of their own lament because they don’t make time for working out? I know who would tell someone that – a blogger who has never had to try to tackle both [insert a personal goal here] and retire a significant amount of debt at the same time.

The reason why I wrote this entry is because I know I have a lot of random readers on this blog and I can track where some of you come from out there on the internet. Some of you are coming from some of these self-help, conquer the world type of blogs and that’s great. Believe me, I want to conquer the world and improve my health, wealth, and well-being just as much as those other writers. However, I live my life in the real reality – a reality much closer to where you probably exist, too. I understand that it’s hard to train to climb Mount Everest when you have a six-figure student loan debt crushing you and dictating nearly every move you make. I understand that it’s really hard and really difficult to lose weight when you’re working 16 – 18 hour days (or longer). I understand that it’s difficult to put the proper amount of time and effort into increasing your social circle or even finding someone worthwhile to date when you’re so focused and, unfortunately, controlled by crushing levels of consumer or student debt. I understand where you’re coming from – I get it.

And I don’t think that you’re lazy. I don’t think that you’re anti-social. I don’t think that you’re making excuses. Not at all.

What I do think is that you’re stuck in the same rut that the majority of population is stuck in – you’re forced to do things to retire debt (or generally improve your financial position) that prevent you from fully engaging in the other activities that you want to engage in. You’re not going to find this understanding on those self-help blogs or the guys’ blogs or in many other places out there because the truth is that those writers simply don’t understand. In about 6 years I’ve paid off nearly $100,000 in student loan debt and I have another $21,000+ left to repay. I repaid that amount while losing a tremendous amount of weight, gaining most of it back, losing much of it again, and gaining some of it back again. Professionally, I work around the clock; not just a 9-to-5 type of job. Believe me, I understand the burden of debt and how it really does dictate what you can and cannot do with your life.

And, like many of you, I’ve sat there and listened to people in my personal and professional life ask me why I don’t [insert whatever here] while I’m young? These people also have no idea what it’s like to be suffocating under crushing consumer or student loan debt. Folks constantly ask me why I don’t go away on vacation (my last real vacation was back in 6th grade). Well, I don’t go away on vacation because I can’t imagine spending a thousand or two bucks on vacating reality while I still owe money on my student loan. That would be financially foolish. People ask me why I don’t go out and find a “nice” girl to date (usually, their definition of “nice” is different than mine, but that’s another entry). They don’t understand that when you work around the clock, you don’t have much time for socialization outside of your standard circle. And, to mix a little bit of a guys’ blog mindset here, they don’t understand that the girls you meet while you are burdened with immense debt, while you are out of shape, or while you are working around the clock are typically not the girls that you want to marry! I assume it’s the same for the ladies out there looking for a man.

To sum it up, I just warn you all to read these self-help, self-improvement blogs for purposes other than examples to follow. Chances are very strong that the writer you’re reading doesn’t have the same life experiences as you do. And chances are even stronger that they never had to tackle an immense amount of undischargeable consumer or student debt before, during, or after they accomplished whatever it is that made them an amateur expert.

Be rational, believe in yourself, and tackle your debt first. Once you remove that crushing yoke, then focus on your health (losing weight, gaining muscle, etc.), and after that you can focus on your social life. There’s no way around doing what makes sense and this is the path that I really believe makes the most sense for the most people out there.

Now… back to the grind!

I’m Just About Ready for My Next Educational Endeavor

Believe it or not, I’m actually getting ready to write a new chapter in my educational history. No, I’m not going to apply to a doctoral program… yet. Instead, I’ve found a very interesting Post-Master’s Certificate program at my local college that manages to fit my personal educational goals as well as my professional development needs. The local college has a Post-Master’s Certificate program in Curriculum Studies as a part of their School of Education and after doing some preliminary research and meeting with the Director of the program, I think I’m going to apply to start classes next spring.

Apparently, I want more of this in my life...

During my very pleasant, upbeat conversation with the Director of the program, I was pleased to hear how the topic of Curriculum Studies includes how spaces and places impact a student’s ability to learn. In other words, this program will allow me to do some research on the link between what a classroom looks and feels like and student achievement. There are already a lot of folks looking at this issue, so I expect that I will have a lot of trouble finding research on the topic. Ideally, I’ll be able to research how charter schools create learning spaces that positively impact their students. Part of that research would also have to show how failing charter schools design their classrooms and facility culture – which could be an interesting study on its own.

Sometimes I know that I’m huge nerd at heart because when I think about researching these types of issues, I’m excited about the possibilities. I mean come on! Who thinks about charter school classroom design and its relationship to student achievement and thinks, “Oh my God! What an awesome subject!?”

Hey – I just like reading and researching in a way that many people do not. And that’s not a judgment call on anyone and their academic abilities. Instead, it’s just a public confession that I like going to school and learning new things.

And that’s about it, folks. As I work to figure out if/when I want to apply to this program, I’ll keep everyone updated. There are five classes in the program so I’d probably just take one this spring, two over the summer, one next fall, and one the following spring. No big deal. I’ve got some existing travel, professional, and social commitments that would impact my ability to attend some classes this coming spring, so that’s something that I’m trying to think through right now. One thing that I’m not thinking too much about is the cost of the program. Why? Well, as an alumnus of the local college who already holds a Masters Degree, I get a 25% discount. Plus, I’m going to try to get my company to pay for a small portion of the program costs, too.

Anyway, we’ll see how it goes. Could be a lot of fun!