Loan repayment program draws college graduates
Like a lot of recent college graduates, Danielle Hood entered the job market this spring with significant student debt. Even after landing a full-time job as a speech language pathologist at Dinwiddie County Public Schools, she worried that owing $70,000 in student loans would impact her plans to buy a house.
“My debt-to-income ratio makes it hard,” says Hood, who graduated from Longwood University in May with a master’s degree in communication sciences and disorders. Her annual salary is $51,300, and she has to pay a monthly minimum of $800 for her student loans.
In October, Hood received good news: She’s one of 92 people out of 140 applicants accepted into Virginia’s new Talent Attraction Program, which uses funds from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission to help recent college graduates pay back their student loans, in exchange for living and working in Southern or Southwest Virginia communities that were traditionally dependent on growing tobacco.
The commission has allocated $3 million for the first two years, offering participants up to $12,000 a year for two years if they qualify for hard-to-fill professions, including public school teachers, speech pathologists, physical and occupational therapists, engineers and certain IT positions. After two years, they can apply for another 24-month period and receive up to $48,000 total.
Most of this year’s recipients already live or work in the designated region, but the commission anticipates the program will attract more nonresidents, says Stephanie Kim, the tobacco commission’s finance director. The average recipient this year owes $58,000, she adds, and 15 have more than $100,000 in debts.
“We used a study from Chmura Economics and Analytics as well as data from the Virginia Department of Education and local school superintendents to determine the hardest-to-fill occupations across the tobacco region,” Kim says. The tobacco commission plans to move the application period to March or April next year to attract newly minted grads, but it doesn’t anticipate changing the professional fields it’s seeking to fill.
For Hood, the program has already made a major impact: She and her husband are looking for land in Dinwiddie to build a house.
“The Talent Attraction Program allowed us to be pre-approved for a higher [mortgage] loan, because in the long run, thankfully, I will not have to take care of that $24,000 portion of my student debt,” Hood says.