Minnesota nurse's student loan debt seeps into all facets of life

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Editor's note: Minnesotans who attend college have some of the highest student loan debt in the country. This story is part of an occasional series of individuals whose lives have been altered by their student debt. Share your story with MPR News at this link.


Even as a teenager, Hattie Lombard was set on a career in nursing.

She had a job as a nursing assistant during her high school years in Waconia, saving whatever money she could to put toward college. Her parents did the same.

Together, Lombard estimates she and her parents had saved about $5,000 for school.

"We were that average, middle-class family that made just enough, but not too much," she said in a recent interview.

Lombard graduated high school in 2008 when state colleges and universities were awash with nursing students. A shortfall of nurses was expected, so many people wanted to enter the field to fill the void.

Lombard, now 29, figured going to a private college would be a better bet to get into a nursing program, so she started at Bethel University. The school's tuition was $12,875 per semester for a full-time undergraduate in the 2008-2009 academic year, according to a Bethel catalog, excluding fees.

She applied to nursing school sophomore year and got put on a waitlist. Hoping to start a nursing program sooner, she transferred to Crown College. The school's tuition for her first semester was $9,935, per its catalog.

• Related: These are the people struggling the most to pay back student loans



Lombard worked throughout college at a hospital and as a nursing assistant at a nursing home in Waconia.

"I worked every weekend. I worked straight nights. I did not have a life," she said.
"I lived at home with my parents so I worked and went to school and that was about it."

Despite all her work, Lombard took out loans to pay for the bulk of her education. She said she had to pay between $1,000 and $2,000 a semester for tuition the loans wouldn't cover, plus some $500 for books each semester. On top of that, she had car payments, a cell phone bill, and would help buying groceries at home.

After a year and a half at Bethel, it took Lombard another three and a half years to wrap up a nursing degree at Crown. Some credits didn't transfer, making it take her five years to graduate.

She finished college with $98,000 in debt.

Lombard's debt is higher than average, but nurses still generally take on a significant debt load — more than 70 percent of nursing graduates $37,000 or more in debt, according to Debt.org.

Spokespeople for Bethel and Crown said Lombard's case was an outlier compared to their average debt amounts. Bethel's median student debt was about $28,000, per a spokesperson. An average Crown student in 2017-18 borrowed $7,622 that year, a spokesperson said, and the college offers financial aid seminars and counsel to individual students and families.

After graduating from Crown, Lombard couldn't land a nurse position. She continued working as a nursing assistant in the meantime.

In December 2013, she got hired as a nurse in St. Cloud. It paid $32 an hour. Plus, St. Cloud's cost of living was lower than around the metro.

Lombard had to begin paying back her student loans in 2014. An income-based repayment set her initial monthly bills around $500 or $600.

"When I first started having to repay [the loans]," she said, "I had absolutely no idea that they were gonna be as expensive as they were."

She got a nursing job at St. Francis in Shakopee in 2015, bringing her a pay raise and closer to home.

Lombard married her husband, Isaac Lombard, in 2016. They bought a house in Watertown, Minn. — not the house they wanted, Lombard noted, but the one they could afford — the following year.

The couple had a baby daughter, Penelope, in May 2018.

Hattie Lombard now makes about $70,000 annually. Her husband makes about $30,000 as a mortgage broker.

Their mortgage on their Watertown home is about $2,200. Plus, they have two car payments and student loan bills for both Hattie and Isaac. Hattie's two student loan payments total about $1,000 a month.

"I would say at the end of every month we probably have an extra $200," she said. "We get by, but we don't go on vacations, we don't really go out to eat. We live within our means. We love coupons."

Lombard said they'd have to sell their house if they had to pay for childcare. She said it would've added another $1,200 to $1,300 to their monthly bills. Instead, Penelope stays with her mom's parents or her dad on the day a week he's able to work from home.

Some of the Lombard's friends grew up in "wealthier homes," Hattie said, and their parents paid for their school. She sees them buying boats, going on vacation, not having to worry if their car breaks down.

"Sometimes it's hard to watch. And yet at the same time it's like I'm responsible for this," Lombard said. "It's not like somebody gave this debt to me and I didn't earn it."

Hattie and Isaac Lombard believe they won't be able to afford to have a large family, but they want to provide Penelope with the best future they can.

Each parent puts $25 of every paycheck — an amount they hope to increase one day — into a savings account for their daughter.

When Penelope turns 18, that money will be hers.

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