International Business Times | By Benjamin Reeves | July 14, 2012
(Photo: Lee Waldron)
Sara Jo and Lee Waldron with Lydia Jane, 1, in front of their house in Hillsboro, Kan. The Waldrons moved to Hillsboro in part because of the state's Rural Opportunity Zones student-loan repayment program.
Last spring, Lee Waldron got a call from his mother-in-law, saying, "You've got to look into this Rural Opportunity Zone thing."
At the time, Waldron was living in Reedley, Calif., about 100 miles north of Bakersfield, with his wife Sara Jo and 1-year-old daughter Lydia Jane. Waldron was saddled with $30,000 in student-loan debt from his four years at Tabor College, a Christian school in Hillsboro, Kan. Given his income and the obligation to pay the minimum amount due each month on his student loan, it seemed inconceivable he would ever be able to afford to buy a home.
But the Rural Opportunity Zones program offered a way out. Under this plan in 50 rural Kansas counties, the state repays student loans over five years for people who move into these areas. The maximum benefit during that time is $15,000, so Waldron would still be responsible for one-half of his debt -- but that was much more manageable. “It was a weight off my mind,” he said.
The burden got even lighter when Waldron was able to secure a job as Tabor's director of enrollment operations. Now, he and his family have moved to Hillsboro and bought a home. His wife’s family lives nearby, and the pace of the community -- with its tiny main street, four restaurants (only one serving liquor), and 10 churches -- suits the Waldrons better than that of the West Coast.
"It's not a smoke and gun show like where I come from in California,” Waldron said. “It's small, it's friendly, it's slow, it's great to raise a family in."
There are a variety of student-loan repayment plans offered by the military to attract enlistees and by some small towns to lure health-care workers, but the Kansas program is one of the few broad-based efforts to repopulate and revive communities that are in economic decline and thus unable to entice educated people to reside in them. Read more about Will This Student Loan Repayment Program Save A Large Slice Of Rural America?