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One Tampa Bay resident says the fate of his student loans could change his retirement plans

A man goes through papers at a table.
Bailey LeFever
John Curtis reviews his loan information at his Temple Terrace home.

The 69-year-old Tampa Bay architect is dealing with more than $100,000 in debt.

For many, college represents a chance at securing the American dream: a stable job, kids, a house with a yard.

At the end of the August, millions of Americans will resume payments on the thousands of dollars it took to earn their degrees.

WUSF is bringing you the stories of some Tampa Bay residents who have struggled with student loan debt. We'll tell you how this debt is shaping their lives.

John Curtis is a 69-year-old architect who lives in Temple Terrace with his wife and stepson. The fate of John's student debt loans of more than $100,000 could change their future.


He moved to Florida in the late 1990s to earn his masters in architecture from the University of South Florida, taking out slightly more than $100,000 in loans.
But when he graduated, he was making less than the job he left in Iowa to go back to school.

"I think that's kind of the basis for this loan program is that you pay for a master's degree or whatever degree you're finishing, that you should be able to go out and get a job and easily pay back your loan after you start making some good money."

It took about six years for Curtis to earn his architect's license while also working. After, his salary went up some, but not quite what he expected. He said he's always made payments on his student loans over the past 20 some years, except for a period where he was laid off.

"I've worked pretty much constantly ever since I graduated from school. But our last check balance about a week ago, my balance is now $122,234.45," he said, shuffling through a stack of papers. "So we've not made much headway in reducing that by very much."

More than 20 years after graduating from the master's program, Curtis is finally making the highest salary of his career, working for an engineering and inspections company in Sun City Center.

But since the payments are adjusted to your income, Curtis said money has always stayed tight. The family never buys new cars, opting to do the repairs themselves. They make old furniture work and watch their money.

The architect continued making the payments for the bulk of the pandemic, even after the pause was announced, but recently stopped for a few months. That allowed the family to replace their roof, paint the house, put a little money away for emergencies, and go out to eat occasionally.

"Now, we're thinking, what are we going to do when the payments start again in August," Curtis said. "How much longer are they going to last? We still don't know how many years will we have to pay this."

And navigating the loan repayment process has been difficult. Curtis is still trying to find out when his payment period ends.

"It's been quite a confusing, almost nightmare I guess I could say. It's just kind of a real pain in the rear to work eight hours a day and come home and spend two or three hours an evening trying to fill out these forms and get your questions answered."

Dominique Baker is an Assistant Professor of Education Policy at Southern Methodist University. She agrees that navigating repayment is challenging.

"When you sort of look at a website, you see like the whole menu of options, even if they don't apply to you," she said. "So it can be really confusing."

Read more: The student loan pause brought one Hillsborough resident stability. Now it's ending

Baker said people can try their best to sort out these issues, but widespread relief needs to come from the federal government.

Curtis turns 70 in January. He and his wife want to retire — downsize to a travel trailer, and live a simpler life on the road together if they can.

“If we have to go back to paying the full amount on this loan, that’s going to cause us issues with trying to save any money at all at that point in time," he said.

"Right now, until we can kind of find out where this loan is at, what more we have to pay and if it gets forgiven or not, is kind of making sure that I keep working until we can think about doing a retirement."

Bailey LeFever is a reporter focusing on education and health in the greater Tampa Bay region.
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