Reid Clark, 57, unexpectedly became the sole provider for his five children.
He took out parent PLUS loans to fund their education, and told Insider he now has $550,000 in debt.
"I'm looking at paying $3,000 a month for the better part of the rest of my life," he told Insider.
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Reid Clark didn't expect to be providing for five children on just his income alone.
Clark was preparing to pay for his five kids' education as part of a two-income family, but he and his ex-wife divorced in 2011. Just a few years later, when the children started going to college, he decided to turn to federal loans to finance their education himself. (Due to private circumstances, his ex-wife isn't contributing.)
Now, his debt load stands at over $550,000.
"I'm looking at paying $3,000 a month for the better part of the rest of my life," Clark, who is 57, told Insider. He estimates he'll have to keep making those payments for at least three more decades.
Parent PLUS loans, the type of loan Clark is paying off, is a federal loan that lets parents pay for their children's education. It can cover the full cost of attendance minus any financial aid the child already received.
For Clark, the ability to take out those loans meant he didn't have to defer his kids' educations despite the unexpected change in his financial standing. But now, he said, even though he makes a livable salary in healthcare sales, his retirement could very likely be pushed off because he chose to take on debt to prioritize his kids' futures.
"For those of us who want to see our kids do better, we understand that you better yourself, and you better your chances for success, with education," Clark said. "And I'm just not going to take the chance on not sending my kids to school, even though it's going to create a tremendous financial burden. It's not an option."
Clark says he just wanted what was best for his kids, and parent PLUS loans allowed him to give his kids the best. But he's "highly concerned" for his own financial future, and he blames high interest rates and lending practices that don't take into account the borrower's income, or change in income.
'They make it really challenging to educate your kids and pay for it'
President Joe Biden campaigned on canceling $10,000 in student debt for every borrower, and some Democrats are urging him to cancel $50,000 of every borrower's federal student loans using executive action. But it's unclear whether parent PLUS loans would be included in that forgiveness, and helping parents with their debt has yet to be a part of conversations on Capitol Hill.
Parent PLUS loans are the most expensive type of federal loan: they currently have an interest rate of 6.28% for the 2021-22 school year, compared with 3.73% for undergraduate loans, allowing debt to accumulate quicker for parents who need help sending their kids to school.
New data released last week by the Texas Public Policy Foundation highlighted the burden student debt puts on parents, finding that there is around one parent PLUS borrower for every five student-loan borrowers. Andrew Gillen, author of the report, told Yahoo Finance that one of the problems with parent PLUS loans is that since the amount parents receive is based off cost of attendance instead of how much the parents can actually afford, it can create a "dangerous mentality" that leads to unchecked borrowing.
It's not like Clark's children went to the most expensive schools in the country. Three of them went to small schools in Pennsylvania, where Clark currently lives, and the other two went to other state schools on the East Coast. But even for public universities, tuition coasts have been soaring for years.
Since 2001, average in-state tuition has surged 211%. In addition to Clark's loans, each of his kids took out around $20,000 in student loans because Clark wanted them to have a "vested interest" in their educations.
He said his debt comes down to flaws with the federal student-aid system, in which the government makes it very easy for people to borrow money but very hard to pay it back.
"At the very onset of the whole process is where the problems begin," Clark said, referring to the unchecked amount parents can borrow years in advance. "They really make it challenging to educate your kids and pay for it."
Once the federal pause on student-loan payments lifts in February, Clark anticipates having the means to make monthly payments on his loans, but completely eliminating his debt could take decades and he said he's "not holding out hope" for student-loan forgiveness anytime soon.
"I am highly concerned about my ability to pay back the loans during my remaining working years, and it's going to scare me even more in a few years when I retire, and I go on to a very limited income," Clark said. "That's the part that gives me the most anxiety."