GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Looking back on her life, Shatira Williams, 33, wishes she listened to her grandmother, stuck with it and earned her bachelor’s degree when she first attended college as a teenager.

Williams is working toward a master of science in communication disorders at Stockton University. She calculates she has $40,000 in student loans and will owe $100,000 by the time she finishes her master’s in 2021.

The mother of an 11-year-old girl lives in an apartment and does not believe she will be eligible for a home mortgage until 2023 at the earliest.

“Once I graduate and do obtain a job, by the graces, all my checks will be going towards paying off my student loan debt,” said Williams, a 2002 Atlantic City High School graduate. “My whole income, or salary, will be going towards paying off my student loan debt.”

Among millennial non-homeowners with student loan debt, 83 percent cite their debt as a factor delaying them from buying a home, largely due to their inability to save for a down payment, according to a report by the National Association of Realtors. The average delay is about seven years, the report states.

The millennial generation is defined as those born between 1981 and 1996 and as the first generation to come of age in the current millennium.

Kim Turner-McDuffie, who works for Berkshire Hathaway Fox & Roach HomeServices in Northfield, said she finds home buying to be quite a struggle for millennials, even with grant money available through Atlantic County.

The Atlantic County Improvement Authority has a first-time homebuyer program. The New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency has lenders connected to its first-time homebuyer mortgage program and down-payment assistance program.

“In some cases, I found it to be helpful for them to put the loans in deferment until the mortgage company can work something out. I’m hoping the state will follow through with free community or affordable college,” said Turner-McDuffie, a Realtor with 15 years of experience.

Williams started her college career at Atlantic Cape Community College at age 19 and wanted to be a nurse.

“It (college) was challenging. I was not prepared. I was a little distracted,” said Williams, who wanted to enlist right after high school, but she obeyed her father and waited until she was 21 in 2005 to join the Air Force.

Williams stayed in the Air Force from 2005 to 2009. Over the years, she worked as a pharmacy technician, for which she took college classes, and as a massage therapist, Williams’ most recent job before she started her speech-language pathology studies.

“I liked it (massage therapy) being a veteran, because it was quiet,” said Williams, who added she didn’t really have to interact with clients if she didn’t want to. “You perform your service, and they fall asleep half the time.”

Williams would have stuck with massage therapy, but she found it too hard on her back to do long-term.

As a veteran, Williams exhausted her GI Bill benefits, so she applied for another military program, vocational rehabilitation, which led her to speech-language pathology and her master of science in communication disorders curriculum.

Georgeanna “Tracey” Newmones, who has been a full-time Realtor in Atlantic County for 24 years, said many millennials defer their student loan payments, so they don’t know the total debt amount or how much they will be paying each month.

“Banks consider it a regular debt like a car payment. A lot of loans end up being like a car payment or more,” Newmones said.

Millennials looking to buy their first house who are carrying a great deal of college loan debt may need either a co-signer or to increase their income to the point where they are working two full-time jobs, Newmones said.

When Williams decided to pursue speech-language pathology, she chose a career, not just a job, unlike her previous choices. She has never experienced anything so intense academically, she said.

She is scheduled to finish the bachelor’s part of her program in August 2019. As a veteran, she receives financial help from the military for her school costs and living expenses, but she still needs to take out student loans.

“I’m trying to make this thing work, but it’s hard,” said Williams, who added her daughter’s father does help, but he is in the military overseas. “Sometimes, I feel bad because I feel like I’m not putting in the time with (my daughter).”

Jessica Lautz, director of demographics and behavioral insights at the National Association of Realtors, said student debt load is $1.4 trillion nationwide, having increased 150 percent in the past decade.

One thing millennials can do is to look into whether they are eligible for any of the more than 100 income-based student-loan repayment programs out there, Lautz said. For people who have not started accumulating college loan debt, her organization advocates for more financial literacy as a matter of federal public policy.

“It has been increasing, the amount of debt,” Lautz said. “There are those who can’t buy, and those who can’t sell.”

Staff Writer

Twenty years as a staff writer in the features department, specializing in entertainment and the arts at The Press of Atlantic City.

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