Religious aspirants get help with student loan debt

DETROIT — After nearly two years of waiting, Melanie Bruss headed earlier this month to Minnesota to join the Consecrates of the Most Holy Savior, a Catholic religious order.

Bruss was accepted to the order in November 2012, but had been held up by a stumbling block — her student loans.

Like a growing number of people seeking full-time religious service — one study estimates about 4,200 people nationwide are in the same boat — Bruss had student loans, but the order she wanted to join required her to be debt free in order to get started.

The Study on Educational Debt and Vocations to Religious Life, conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, found that seven in 10 religious communities surveyed turn away at least one person per year because of student loan debt. Of approximately 15,000 serious inquiries to men's and women's religious communities in the last 10 years, one in three (32%) involved a person with educational debt averaging $28,000, a figure slightly higher than the $25,000 national average.

Bruss had more than $140,000 in loans from her graduate degree in counseling from Ball State University. She's been working to pay it off through an innovative program — started by a Catholic layperson — that uses fundraising to help cover the payments. Bruss will be spending much of her time in missionary work among poor people in Mexico.

While Bruss' situation is somewhat unusual, it's becoming more common for recent college graduates to put their dreams on hold because of student debt.

Graduates have said their high levels of debt have meant they had to move back home because they couldn't afford a place of their own, take second jobs to make the monthly payments and pass on social lives because of a lack of money.

"College has served as a gateway to opportunity for millions to climb the ladder and achieve their dreams," Robit Chopra, assistant director and student loan ombudsman at the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, testified before Congress last month. "And the individual rewards of our hard work — owning a car, buying our first home and securing a comfortable retirement — continue to define the American dream.

"But in the aftermath of the Great Recession, behind all of the facts and statistics, is a much broader question — how do we preserve the drive to succeed for so many who feel that the dream is now out of reach?"

Americans now owe more than $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, more than the amount owed on credit card debt.

"Two years ago, analysis by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau uncovered that there was more than $1 trillion in outstanding student debt, and we raised the possibility that excessive student debt burdens may pose a problem for all of us," Chopra said. "Since that time, there has been growing consensus that today's $1.2 trillion can have repercussions that threaten the economic security of young Americans and broader economic growth."

Bruss, 35, is among those affected by debt.

She grew up Catholic in Center Line, Mich., but walked away from the church in her teen years. In her 20s, she came back to the church during a difficult stretch in her life.

She started going to mass daily, and some suggested to her that she join an order.

But Bruss had a "narrow view of what nuns did. I thought all they did was sit around all day and pray."

She then had a dream where she was wearing a white habit and a light blue veil. She said she heard a voice say to her, "Look and see."

A little while later, a priest and a sister came to her house. The sister was wearing a light blue habit and a white veil. They were from the Consecrates of the Most Holy Savior. The Consecrates spend about six months of the year in monastic contemplation and the other six months in mission work to the poor, mostly in Mexico.

Bruss went through the process of joining them — but was told that before she could start, she had to get rid of the debt she accumulated while obtaining her master's degree.

"God gave me a great love for the Hispanic people," she said. "I was very excited when I was accepted (into the order). But the loans worried me. It would take me more than a decade to pay it all off on my own, just using the money I make from my job."

Bruss turned to the Labouré Society, a group based in Minnesota that helps aspirants discharge their student loan debt so they can enter full-time service. Bruss has raised more than $132,000 so far.

Cy Laurent founded the group to help those with debt — especially student loan debt — enter full-time Catholic service.

While the future nuns or priests are in training, the society covers their monthly payments. When they are ordained, the society pays off the entire loan. If they don't make it to ordination, they resume paying for their own loan.

The society has helped more than 240 people since 2003 and has seen the number of people seeking help pick up each year.

"We, as a Catholic church, have been praying for more to enter these vocations for my entire adult life," said Laurent. "We know we have people who are willing to enter, but who have student loan debt.

"That's a huge problem. It can prevent you from following your calling. That shouldn't be what is stopping you. We can't fix the cost of college, but we can help those who have debt. Having gone to college and having to take a student loan out to pay for it shouldn't stop you from serving the church."