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Here’s Why So Many Americans Feel Cheated By Their Student Loans

Jen’s story is like a lot of people’s stories. She’s 35 years old. She and her sister were the first in their family to go to college. She emerged from undergrad with $12,000 in debt, and even though she was making just $30,000 a year at her first job, she made her standard monthly loan payments on time. In 2008, when she was laid off into the depths of the economic crisis, she decided to do what so many other people did then: go back to school.

Jen enrolled in a one-year master’s program in public policy at an Ivy League university, where, despite having small scholarships and participating in work-study programs, she accumulated an additional $50,000 in federal loans. But by the time she graduated, the economy still hadn’t recovered, and she struggled to find work.

She deferred her loans (meaning she did not have to make payments, and no interest accrued) and when the deferment period ran out, she put them in forbearance (during which payments are suspended, but interest does accrue). In 2010, she found a job — only to be laid off, again, two years later. She managed to find a contract gig that put her to work three days a week, and consolidated her loans into a single loan that would be easier to manage.

Just months later, Jen, then in her twenties, had a stroke. She didn’t have health insurance, but was able to get on Medicaid, which allowed to her to focus on recovering without incurring additional medical debt. She landed a job in October 2012, but between juggling her new gig, physical therapy, and the day-to-day stressors of her life, she struggled to keep up with her loan payments.

“That’s no excuse,” she said. “I dropped the ball, and I defaulted.” Originally, the loan servicer asked her to get back on a standard repayment plan — one where the payments would be far above what she could afford. “I told them I just didn’t have it,” she said. “And that’s the first time I heard about an Income-Based Repayment plan.” Since then, her loan servicer has auto-debited 10% of her discretionary income every month.

Jen is one of more than 44 million Americans with student loans, and her current balance of $70,000 is just a tiny fraction of our collective $1.5 trillion debt load. The weight of all that student loan debt is markedly different than the feeling of the weight of mortgage or credit card debt — after all, those borrowers can declare bankruptcy, an option unavailable to student loan borrowers. Not even death can absolve you or your loved ones from the responsibility of some student loans.

That Jen defaulted on her loans isn’t uncommon, either — default rates are projected to hit 38% by 2023. Like Jen, most who default don’t do so because they’re lazy, or not out looking for work, but because the loan payment amounts are just too much. Nevertheless, much of the conversation around student loan debt still puts the onus on the borrower.

“A member of my family once said I deserved student loan debt because I chose the unrealistic field of history,” one borrower told me.

“My in-laws believe poor students get everything paid for (they don’t) and that students can all just find jobs that work with their school schedule (they can’t),” another borrower explained.


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Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Analytikus. Staff authors are listed in

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