The college debt crush

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Doug Dumont, center, reviews financial aid out-of-pocket expense spreadsheets with Lewiston High School students Halima Aden, left, and Aicha Omar, right, during special office hours designed to help students figure out their post-high-school academic plans.

Lewiston educator Doug Dumont (once $80,000 in student debt) urges: Have a plan. Don’t do what I did in college 

Part 1

LEWISTON – Doug Dumont, 41, does more than help students go to college.

He coaches them about life after college — about things like student loan debt and future paychecks — so that at age 23 they won’t have to move back in with their parents.

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Dumont is the aspirations coordinator for Lewiston High School. His own life experience “makes me the perfect person to do what I do. I didn’t go that straight and narrow path of high school, college, career. I understand how to navigate the application process quite well.”

He transferred from one college to another four times.

“It cost a lot of money,” he said.

By the time Dumont earned his master’s degree, he owed $80,000 in student loans. That, plus his wife’s student loan debt, contributed to the couple having to give up their house and move in with his parents.

That was necessary despite Dumont being successful: he graduated and landed good jobs. A much worse situation is when students borrow and don’t graduate, leaving them in debt without a degree.

What every college-bound student needs is what Dumont didn’t have: A plan.

“I graduated from Lewiston High School in 1993. I went to college because my friends were going to college. I had no idea what I wanted to do.”

As a high school senior he got accepted to Merrimack College in Massachusetts. Three of his friends were going there. At orientation “I loved it.”

But a few weeks into his first semester, he got homesick.

“I said to my parents, ‘I don’t want to stay.’” They told him he had to stick it out. He finished the first semester, and on his own transferred to the University of Southern Maine for the second semester.

In his sophomore year, he transferred to Northeastern University in Boston. “I had always dreamed of going to school in the city. It was a great experience, but a very expensive experience. I realized I could get the same experience at USM,” Dumont said. “So transfer I go!”

In his junior year, he transferred back to USM. By this point he had changed his major four times.

At Merrimack his major was business. At USM the first time, environmental science. At Northeastern, environmental geology. At USM the second time he was a history major.

His parents supported him and paid some of the costs. A good student, Dumont was doing his academic work and earning credit.

“They wanted me to go to college. As far as where and for what, they wanted me to do what I wanted to do,” Dumont said. “Later on they told me as a middle school student I said I wanted to be a teacher. When I finally went back and got my teaching certificate, I got the ‘I told you so’ conversation.”

Each time he transferred and changed majors, his debt went up, since changing majors typically means taking more classes to get the necessary credits.

“Student loans, student loans, student loans!” Dumont said, recalling his college student attitude. He wasn’t worried about paying them back. “It was four years away,” he said, remembering how four years seemed like a long time back then.

“I racked up a significant debt,” Dumont said. “At the very end, including my master’s degree, it was $80,000.”

After completing the first semester as a junior at USM, Dumont took five years off and worked in retail and as a restaurant manager.

“I was making amazing money as a 20-something-year-old guy; making $50,000.”

At 25, he started subbing as a teacher at Lewiston High. “That’s when I got the bug,” Dumont said. “That’s when I knew I wanted to be in this environment.”

In 2001 he met his future wife, Melissa, who was in college. “She encouraged me to go back and get my degree. With that push, and I knew I wanted to be in the schools, I finished my bachelor’s degree in history at USM.”

After he got his bachelor’s degree, his wife worked on her master’s. Then he went back to USM’s extended teacher education program and earned a combined teacher’s certificate and master’s degree.

He began as a long-term math substitute teacher at Edward Little High School, then was hired as an Auburn Middle School teacher, where he taught for seven years.

Meanwhile, the couple married, bought a home and had their first child.

Their $120,000 combined student loan debt, which carried monthly payments of about $1,000 a month, meant the numbers didn’t work.

She was a beginning social worker, he a first-year teacher — “two of the lowest paying careers,” Dumont said. “We were barely making $60,000.”

They couldn’t keep up with the $1,400 monthly mortgage payment.

They had to give up their house. “We moved in with my parents.”

Eventually they moved out and rented their own home.

Their careers and pay have improved. He’s consolidated his student loans to 30 years to lower the payments.

In April they bought a home in Lewiston. “It’s affordable,” he said.

They now have two children, a boy and a girl.

He shares his college experience with his students, coaching them to think about what kind of career they want.

“Then we work backward,” planning what major a student would need, how much they can expect to earn and how much student debt they could afford.

If Dumont had it to do again, “I would take a year off after high school to figure out what I wanted to do.”

He’s already having college and career conversations with his children.

His daughter, 6, wants to go to college and become a baker.

“My son is 9. He wants to go to Central Maine Community College and become a police officer.”

Doug Dumont, the aspirations coordinator for Lewiston High School, works in his office.

Tomorrow: Part 2

* One local graduating college student talks about how she got the education she wanted without going into deep debt.

* Two local graduating high school students consider their many options as decision-time draws near. 

Doug Dumont chats with a new student at Lewiston High School.

The banners from many colleges hang on the walls of Doug Dumont’s office in Lewiston High School.

Doug Dumont, center, reviews financial aid out-of-pocket expense spreadsheets with Lewiston High School students Halima Aden, left, and Aicha Omar, right, during special office hours designed to help students figure out their post-high-school academic plans.

Melissa and Doug Dumont have already started saving for their children’s education. Lucy, 6, and Camden, 9, sit on their laps in their Lewiston home recently.

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