Past post-secondary students are still repaying decades of school debt

Michael Johnston logs into his Alberta Student Loans account in Calgary on Sun., Feb. 5, 2023. Johnston, a former post-secondary student continues to pay off his student loans. (Photo by Celestia Nlemvo/The Press)

At the age of 54, a former postsecondary student who graduated decades ago, is still finding it difficult to pay his school loans.

Michael Johnston was 23 years old when he enrolled at the University of Alberta to pursue a bachelor’s degree in business. He had always envisioned himself one day running his own small business.

Like many students in Alberta, Johnston knew he couldn’t afford to pay for his tuition, so he took more than $39,020 year in student loans from the federal and provincial governments to pursue a post-secondary education.

Johnston decided to move out of his parents’ home and find his own apartment, which included having to pay for items such as rent, groceries, and utilities, all out of his own pocket. Overtime, Johnston learned how to save his money by splitting his weekly earnings between his needs and the loans—at least until unfortunate events altered his circumstances.  

“In terms of the government, they don’t just give you money for nothing; they do so with the expectation that you will repay them in full,” he says. “Keeping that in mind, I realized I needed to increase my efforts to make sure I would have enough money to repay them when the time came.”

An annual loan cap of $8,500 per semester is imposed on the 75 per cent of Canadian students supported by the combined efforts of the Canadian and Alberta governments according to Alberta Student Aid.

Despite this cap, however, many students continue to accumulate significant debt.

Johnston received the best news of his life while still in school. His girlfriend of three years had announced she was expecting their first child together. 

Johnston says that as exciting as it was to get the news, he wasn’t sure whether to continue his education or start a family.

“At this point, I had no idea what to do,” he says. “I wanted to finish my schooling and get my degree, as I was in my final year, but with my girlfriend telling me that I had my daughter on the way, I thought it was better for me to be at home by her side.” 

Johnston continued weighing his options and then determined that it would be better for him and his family if he finished school and got his degree. 

Within a month, Johnston recognized that it would be wiser to use his lifelong savings to help his girlfriend and their newborn daughter rather than starting the repayment process for his student loans.

“At the time, I knew I had to begin repaying my loans, but at the same time, my girlfriend just had our one-week-old daughter, and at the end of the day, they must come first.”

Michael Johnston logs into his Alberta Student Loans account in Calgary on Sun., Feb.5,2023. Johnston, a former post-secondary student continues to pay off his student loans. (Photo by Celestia Nlemvo/The Press)

“I am 54 years old and still paying off my student debt, but at least now, thanks to the degree, I have a job that’s stable enough to help me pay off my debt while still taking care of my family.” 

Amanda Smith, Michael Johnston’s wife of 25 years and mother of their eldest child, says Michael is the hardest-working man she has ever known and will do anything in her power to support him.

“Having children comes with a lot of expenses, so there could have been no way that he could pay it back in time knowing that we were starting our family,” she said. “Despite all that, Michael continues to work hard, and I am proud of him as each month, he and I are both setting aside $300 to help pay off this loan.”

Smith says life has a way of surprising you when you least expect it, but if you find a healthy balance, everything else will fall into place.

“Michael and I didn’t intend to have children at such a young age, but when the opportunity presented itself, we made the decision to have our child.”

“I can speak for both of us when I say we have no regrets because at the end of the day, Michael was able to find that balance, and as a result, it made him into the man he is today,” she said.

About Celestia Nlemvo 3 Articles
As a news reporting and communications major in the journalism program at SAIT, Celestia Nlemvo is working as a writer for The Press in 2022-23.