Ellen wants to be a vet tech“I am,” she said, “the first assistant manager.”

Her name is Ellen and she works at a Casey’s General Store in Cedar Rapids. I frequent this store quite a bit. I buy gas there. It is my routine stop for a Coke on the way to work. I do a lot of writing at Casey’s because it opens early and there is an unused electrical outlet that I can commandeer.

These past few months I have gotten to know a little bit about Ellen. She is 21 and a native of Cedar Rapids. She attended the same high school as my son though about 10 years later.

Ellen works full time at Casey’s. She also holds another part-time job. She is also a full-time student at a local community college. Ellen is studying to be a vet tech and she worries constantly about two things: her grades, and the amount of debt she is racking up. “At last count,” she said, “it was approaching $25,000.”

Ellen is the face of today’s student. She is also the face of student debt. She worries if she will ever be able to pay off her loans. She worries if she will ever get a job.

Some days, she says, she worries if she will even finish the program. “I’m always tired, always behind, always playing catch up,” she says. “I’ve got car troubles, rent troubles, credit card troubles, and boyfriend troubles.”

Whenever I am around someone as young as Ellen the dad in me comes out and I do what dads do: I offer advice.

I encourage her to stay in school.

I tell her that a good paying job will be there for her.

I tell her that the education she is receiving now will pay off over a lifetime.

I tell her all kinds of things to affirm her desire to finish school.

Most of the things I tell her I even believe.

The fact is, Ellen is tipping at a financial windmill. By the time she graduates she says she will owe about $37,000. The average starting salary for a vet tech is about $30,000. Her loan repayments will be about $305 a month or about 25% of her estimated, after tax, take home pay.[3] She will also need money for rent, car payments, and probably her boyfriend. And then there is food. It is likely that there is a child or two somewhere in her future.

The math just doesn’t work out.

Amidst all this, Ellen is my hero. She is valiant in the face of adversity. She is good natured and always has a quick smile. Ellen works hard and she would make a great vet tech. In fact, I think she would be pretty good at anything she wanted to do. She’s that kind of young woman.

For her sake, and ours, I hope things work out for her.

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