Facing The Downturn On A New York Farm

Doug and Kathy Rutz live on a farm near Binghamton, N.Y. The credit crisis has them wondering if they will be able to get loans to put their children through college.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Recently, NPR has been bringing you kitchen table conversations with families who are rethinking their financial plans in light of the current turmoil. Today, Joel Rose introduces us to the Rutz family. Doug and Kathy Rutz raised five children on their farm outside Binghamton, New York. They took out loans to put their older kids through college. Now they're worried loans won't be an option for their youngest children. Here's Joel Rose from the Rutzes' farm.

(Soundbite of cows mooing)

JOEL ROSE: The sun is getting low over the Rutzes' farm in Greene, New York, and the cows are hungry.

(Soundbite of gate opening)

ROSE: Doug Rutz opens a big metal gate, and the Black Angus cattle follow him into a pasture of tall grass.

They look happy.

Mr. DOUG RUTZ (Farmer): They are now, aren't they? Quieted right down.

ROSE: This land has been in Rutz's family for four generations. Today, Rutz says the cattle operation is barely breaking even. But at least it keeps the farm intact. Inside the family's 100-year-old farmhouse, Kathy Rutz is mashing potatoes for dinner.

Ms. KATHY RUTZ: This, and you got salad and mashed potatoes, brie - because Claire's(ph) home - and some bread.

ROSE: And the main course is - what else? - steak. Kathy Rutz is glad to have three of her five kids at home tonight, so she's pulling out all the stops. But the Rutzes don't always eat like this, especially since last year when the publishing firm where Kathy Rutz worked merged with a bigger one. Rutz got to keep her job, but she took a big pay cut. She says that's made it harder to help out with the kids' college tuition.

Ms. KATHY RUTZ: Part of the plan was that we would be able to contribute based on what we thought our income was going to be. But with my job change, it no longer looks like the way we thought it was going to look.

ROSE: Kathy and Doug Rutz had to take out big loans to get their older kids through college. They've still got a 15-year-old son who's in high school and an 18-year-old daughter who's a freshman at Cornell University. Kathy Rutz says they're getting enough financial aid to cover her bills for now.

Ms. KATHY RUTZ: We have not taken any loans out for Mary(ph) yet. We were able to get her started, and yeah, I'm frightened about the prospect of being declined. What do we do then?

Mr. RUTZ: It's not only being declined. But my biggest worry is that, you know, they get their degrees and our economic system is in such a mess that they can't find jobs. And they have a grace period for six months until they have to start paying these loans back. And then what do you do?

Ms. KATHY RUTZ: Well, we co-signed.

Mr. RUTZ: We think enough of the - that this is important enough that we've put everything that we own at risk. I mean, we could literally lose everything that we have in order to get an education for the kids.

Ms. KATHY RUTZ: So, what are you eating? Spaghetti every day?

Ms. MARY RUTZ (Freshman, Cornell University): Sandwiches. Lots and lots of sandwiches. Peanut butter and jelly.

ROSE: The talk around the dinner table isn't all gloom and doom, but money does come up more than once.

Ms. CLAIRE RUTZ: Mary, have you been to see about work yet?

Ms. MARY RUTZ: Not yet.

Ms. KATHY RUTZ: Let her be a freshman.

ROSE: The Rutzes know they could have sent their kids to cheaper public schools. But Kathy Rutz says she wants them to have as many academic opportunities as possible. Eighteen-year-old Mary says that's why she chose Cornell in spite of the family's financial situation.

Ms. MARY RUTZ: It's going to come down to loans because we all know that I can't pay for this now. But I'm just hoping on the idea that it's going to have more opportunities and more doors that'll be open for me.

ROSE: It's a gamble that seems to be paying off for the Rutzes' other kids. Ben(ph) is paying his own way as a grad student in chemical engineering at the University of Washington. And Claire is hoping to launch a career in international aid when she graduates next year from Syracuse University. Still, Kathy Rutz worries that each of the kids will be saddled with roughly a hundred thousand dollars in debt.

Ms. KATHY RUTZ: When I'm waking up at three o'clock in the morning, I'm thinking about the student loans and how are we going to make a dent in this, because it's not OK for them to carry this alone.

ROSE: Kathy Rutz says she's looking for a way to lighten that load, but she hasn't found it yet. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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