As the next presidential election nears, everyone is talking about college, taxes, the price of tuition, and how those struggling to enter or maintain their positions in the middle class are going to pay for an education. Some are rather harsh in their criticism of those who may not have the gumption to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, something one might note that is quite impossible. Others note that one must hang on to something to leverage his pull up, but that it does require effort. Still others suggest an elevator be made available to everyone hoping to rise.
Traditionally, federal student loans, I think, have been put in that middle category—an aide to the motivated and responsible individual, a way to invest in one’s future with a concrete reward at the end, which enables the individual to pay back that debt after becoming a productive and valuable member of our economic system. Everyone wins, right?
Well, my student loan nightmare really began in grad school. I scraped my way through undergrad courses with no help from my family and through no fault of their own. My father was a WWII disabled veteran, who was denied benefits, and I knew I couldn’t even ask for help paying for college. I finished two associate’s degrees by working my way through and paying as I went, in addition to a couple of very small loans. I paid those back immediately and took another small one to transfer to a university. After twenty-four credit hours, and with a 3.9 GPA, I finished my bachelor’s on an academic scholarship. Like many who do not fully understand that student loans are not really meant to help, but are a means of profit for the lender, I deferred them and took another to start my master’s because everyone knows to make a living as a teacher, you must have at least some grad school.
When I finished my Master of Arts in Creative Writing, I was already teaching, but I took another loan to get my teaching certificate to work in the public school system, taking all my education classes for graduate credit, while simultaneously beginning course work on a Ph.D. in order to teach on the college level. By the time I got my teaching program finished, I was a single mother on a teacher’s income. When I took my loans, I was married and fully expected I would have no trouble paying them back. But as life routinely shows us, things don’t always turn out as we expect. It was time to face my student loan nightmare.
I get it. I took the loans; it’s my responsibility to pay them back. I am not a deadbeat, a freeloader. I am someone the system was meant to help. I am an intelligent and motivated person who came from the wrong side of the tracks, grew up in bad neighborhoods, had no hope of going to college. Now I am a highly educated and productive member of the middle class who has not been unemployed in the past thirty years. Still, I do admit, however, that I think that college should be free for all academically inclined citizens because it levels the playing field, provides opportunity for all, helps to eliminate the caste system we say we abhor, educates our citizens so that they can participate in the political process, allows us to compete with the world in science and innovation, and increases the ideals of freedom and democracy. An educated people raises the overall health of the economy as well. We need our citizens to be educated—not just for their sakes, but for our country’s health. Nevertheless, I took my student loans with the intention of paying them back, which I am now doing. I just had no idea that it would have been better to put my college education on a credit card than going through our federal programs. Of course, I wouldn’t have been able to get any other type of loan because we save all the good deals (low interest rates) for the people who don’t need them. But mainly, our generation was fibbed to, if not exactly lied to. We were told that student loans were great. They existed to help. They were low interest, were easily deferred if you ever had a financial hardship, you did not have to worry about paying them back until you could afford it. To the naïve poor girl with big academic dreams, it sounded too good to be true. It was.
Dealing with the government loan system has become quite similar to owing the mob money. Here is one brief example that is typical of my experience with them.
A couple of years ago, the company who owns my direct government loans (yes, they sold them to a for-profit company), suddenly, inexplicably changed my name, address, phone number—everything— back to my previous information from twelve years ago, and sent all correspondence to my ex-husband, including some important information regarding paperwork that had to be completed by a certain date. I never got it. As a result, they deducted $1500 from my checking account instead of $300. When I called to complain, they realized their error, and put it back after about a week of having an empty account. I had asked them to refund the $1200 and keep my regular payment that was deducted each month. They put it all back instead, and then sent me a notice that I missed a payment, so they capitalized my interest, added $20,000 to my loan, raised my payment and my interest rate, and said, “Suck it.” I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that was their attitude.
This was not an isolated incident either. Due to paperwork errors that had nothing to do with me, my interest and payment has been raised periodically. Then, about two weeks ago, I went on my loan site to check it (because now I check it all the time with great fear and dread in the pit of my stomach), and I noticed that all my information was once again back to my ex-husband’s information, even though I am remarried and have lived at my current address for eight years. In a state of panic, I began the process of phone calls, emails, and faxing information, wondering how many thousands of dollars would be added to my loan this time.
Long story, short (too late, right?), I borrowed about $55,000 for one degree $40,000 for another, and after paying over $15,000 back, I magically now owe $152,000. At least as of yesterday. Last week I owed $151,000, and I have no idea how it went up a thousand dollars in a week. I’ve never missed a payment or submitted one late. In fact, it’s on automatic deduction. When pressed for explanations, the loan personnel go into impossible-to-understand details about capitalization (Did I mention I was an English major?) and the fine print on my thirty-two-page loan documents. My payments are now about $800 a month, but I never even touch the principle. I hope to utilize the ten-year forgiveness plan for public servants, but hope is really too strong a word for this cluster—k. In truth, I have little hope of this “loan forgiveness” ever being realized because the loan company will, no doubt, continue to sabotage my efforts. They have even lied to me about special teacher programs when I asked to apply for them.
For some naïve reason, I thought that government loan programs were there to provide opportunities to those who would not be able to go to college any other way. I idealistically thought that, as Americans, we wanted an educated society, if not for the altruistic reasons we claim, then at least to raise the general level of the economy in order to compete with other countries in the world, and finally, because having the majority of its citizens educated is the best way to ensure freedom and democracy for a country. Clearly, I was wrong. We want to offer education to our citizens as a carrot to wave before them, teasing them with a better life than that with which they were born, only to yoke them in an indentured servitude from which they may never be free.
As politicians speak of free college and more and more high schools are offering free classes for college credit, what will we do about the scores of us who have already gone to college, and will never be able to retire because long after our homes are paid for, if we can even afford a home, our student loans will still linger on? My mortgage is much less scary than my student loans because I don’t have to renegotiate it every year, they don’t constantly raise the payment, and I can sell my house if I can’t handle it. I can’t give back my education. Look, I’m not a deadbeat. I want to pay back my $95,000, but I am a public servant. I teach other people’s children, I work long hours, I work after work—unpaid, I go years without a raise, and I make much less than those with the same education in other careers. In the midst of all this reform, may I simply suggest that the exorbitant interest be removed from the loans of those of us who did not have these opportunities available to us? At least remove that $20,000 added for a mistake that was not even mine. Or do something about that unexplained $1000 increase in just one week.
I have a full-time job as a public high school teacher, I also teach part-time at a college, and I get paid a little for my writing, but my student loan is always there, hovering as some dark force over me, and it’s the single most stressful thing in my life. The harder I work, the more my payment goes up. If I had a home loan for $95,000, I would have a fixed rate I could afford. It would have an end date. I would be paying part of the principle every month. I am not a deadbeat just because I want—no, I need— retroactive student loan reform, and these payment plans of 10% of income don’t work for two reasons: they continue to snowball interest out of control, and they discourage people from getting ahead and making more money. Someday I can hope to pay $1000 a month to my student loans, all the while the principle goes up with no end in sight.
If our government can bail out corporations and corrupt banks, they can forgive the interest on previous student loans, which in my opinion, is nothing more than illegal usury with the government as kingpin and the private loan companies as mob captains and leg-breakers. At the very least, it is government sanctioned indentured servitude. This is the 21st century; let’s catch up with this rest of the free world, and stop pretending our failed systems are part of a healthy free market society, or if we truly care about the financial health of our citizens, show it.—Christina Knowles