Reducing College Debt: a Group Ride. A community slides toward lower education loans.

debt-1376061_1280By Devon Matthews

When Jordan and Candace Shoenberger got married, they faced a problem common among young adults today: massive student loan debt. Together they owed $170,000 from their undergraduate education.

Both social workers, they had a monthly loan payment that was burdensome. They deferred the loans as long as possible and went back to graduate school. This only left them with more debt.

Jordan heard about a group of people who pooled money into a common fund called Relational Tithe to meet the needs of their community. It was founded by Christian activists Shane Claiborne and Darin Petersen. “It was modeled after what the apostles did in the early church. They held everything in common, and no one was in need. It’s an old idea, but a beautiful one,” Jordan said.

He and several friends created a way to use a common fund to reduce student debt. It was named SLED, the Student Loan Experiment (the D doesn’t stand for anything but makes it a catchy acronym).

Each month, members of the group contribute to a common bank account. A payment is disbursed to one group member to make an extra principal payment toward the student loan with the highest interest rate.

This extra payment shortens the length of the loan and decreases the total interest paid over the life of the loan. Each group member continues to pay the minimum payments on their student loans.

snow-1283278__180SLED’s first cycle lasted twelve months, with six people receiving two disbursements each. Over the course of the year, each receiving member was able to pay down an additional $2,000 of their outstanding debt, totaling $12,000 as a group. These extra payments saved the group a collective $15,000 in future interest payments, shortening their collective loans by eliminating ninety-six monthly payments.

The second cycle of SLED is in progress, with twenty-four participants and lasting eight months. Over this time, the group will distribute $8,400 to eight members. After this cycle is complete, the program will be re-evaluated and directions discerned for the next term.

SLED has been successful in grounding the group beyond financial aid for its members. The group has committed to building community and developing relationships with each other that go beyond assisting each other with debt.

Once a month, they share a meal and talk about financial topics that interest them. Past conversation starters have included, How did your family view money, and how has that shaped your own view on money? and, In what ways have you started to plan for the future and for retirement?

Group members reflect that belonging to SLED has created solidarity around a situation that often carries a stigma. Being in a community where members can be vulnerable about their financial challenges is freeing and creates space for positive and realistic conversations.

Group members are optimistic about SLED’s future. Kaleem Kheshgi imagines SLED becoming “a resource for sharing lessons and best practices in financial responsibility among young people with education debt.” He could imagine speaking in churches, high schools, and colleges, helping borrowers make wise financial decisions regarding debt.

John Davis envisions SLED encouraging inter-generational conversations about the realities of student debt and its effect on communities. “This difficult conversation could lead to a deeper level of vulnerability on other issues, as well as making use of the collective wisdom and experience,” said John.

This blog post is a condensed version of an article that was first published in Everence’s Everyday Stewardship magazine and appears in volume 18 of the Giving: Growing Joyful Stewards in Your Congregation magazine.

About the Author
Devon Matthews, a member of SLED, lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He, his wife Kristen and many other SLED members attend Pittsburgh Mennonite Church. For more information, contact SLED at

This blog is a component of the Ecumenical Stewardship Center’s COMPASS initiative to engage young adults in conversations about faith and finances. Like what you see and want to know/do more? Visit the COMPASS web page, follow COMPASS on Twitter, and join the COMPASS community on Facebook.

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