Our current system for collecting student loans makes no distinction between deadbeats who cheat and the much greater numbers of people who just don’t have the money to repay. As predatory debt collection agencies ruin the lives of more and more Americans, we are ignoring an easy and fair solution.
Gregory McNeil, 49, is living out his days at a veterans home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His room is so cramped he can barely fit his twin bed, dresser, and the computer desk he had to sneak in because it was against regulations. His only income comes from the Social Security disability payments he began receiving last year after undergoing quadruple-bypass heart surgery. These payments go directly to the veterans home, which then gives him $100a month for his expenses. McNeil fears that if he leaves the home, the government will seize a portion of his Social Security to pay off the federal student loan he defaulted on two decades ago. “This veterans home may become my financial prison,” he says. “And this is no way to live.”
McNeil’s fears are well grounded. For years, private collection companies acting under contract with the U.S. Department of Education have hounded him. The government garnisheed his wages for a time, and threatened to sue him. He says he always wanted to repay, but has never had the income he would need. Meanwhile, interest continues to accrue on his debt, and has already tripled the amount he owes.
McNeil’s troubles date back to the late 1980s, when, after leaving the Navy, he decided to go back to school to study electronics. He borrowed about $15,000 in federal student loans to attend a local branch of National Education Centers, a for-profit trade school chain that claimed an exceptional track record in helping students find employment. He soon realized, however, that the training was much less than advertised. And he discovered that the company—which later shut down, due in part to a high default rate among its former students that threatened its access to federal funding—would do little to help him find a job. “They considered you placed if you were flipping burgers part time at McDonald’s,” he says.
School officials arranged one interview for him, but after that didn’t pan out he didn’t hear from them again. Mc-Neil tried to carry on with a low-paying factory job, but couldn’t keep up with his loan payments and ended up defaulting. He tried rehabilitating his loan, but after he lost his job in the recession of the early 1990s he couldn’t manage even the reduced payments. In 1994, with only $23 to his name, he felt he had no choice but to file for bankruptcy.
At the time, he thought the judge had discharged all his debts, but in 2001 collection agencies started calling at all hours, demanding payments on his student loans. The government subpoenaed him to appear in court, and the IRS threatened to seize money from his paychecks. Collection agents told him that his loans had not been discharged through bankruptcy after all, because at the time there was a seven-year waiting period before student loans could be erased through that process. In 2002, he filed for bankruptcy again to force the government’s debt collectors to back off. That worked for a while, but in 2007, the calls resumed, and they haven’t stopped since.
For a brief moment in 2008, McNeil thought he had a shot at making steady payments. He had worked as a machinist for fifteen years and reached journeyman status, meaning that his pay would nearly double, to $25 an hour. “This opened the door to me finally being able to get my defaulted student loans under control,” he says. But soon afterward, with the economy in Michigan tanking, he was laid off again. With his health failing, he knew his career was over.
Not so long ago, the kind of troubles McNeil has known were generally limited to poor and working-class people who attended shady for-profit trade schools. But these days, more and more middle-class Americans who attended mainstream public and private colleges are having trouble with the loans they took out to finance their educations, and they too are getting caught in the often brutal gears of the system that manages those loans. In the absence of serious reform, the feelings of rage and helplessness that accompany such experiences are likely to become much more common.
One reason is the ever-rising cost of higher education. In the early 1990s, fewer than half of bachelor’s degree recipients graduated with student debt. Today, two-thirds do. The average amount of debt amassed has risen by 50 percent since 1993, to about $25,000. According to the Project on Student Debt, the proportion of students who graduated from four-year colleges owing at least $40,000 has grown, from 3 percent in 1996 to 10 percent in 2008. Four out of five of these recent borrowers took out high-cost private student loans on top of their federal loans.
Undergraduates leaving college today are also entering the worst labor market in decades. More than half are either unemployed or working in jobs that don’t require a college degree. For the 42 percent of college students who drop out before graduation, the burden of financing a degree they never received is often even more crushing. Just 26 percent of former students who took out loans and left school without a degree are keeping up with their payments.
Yet those numbers don’t come close to capturing the full extent of the crisis. According to a report released last year by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, more than half of all borrowers who started paying back their student loans in 2005 became delinquent, defaulted, or put their loans into forbearance to delay payments within five years. It is unacceptable, of course, that some students take out loans without having any intention of paying them back. But our current fearsomely complex student debt management and collection system, as it has evolved over the last generation, makes no distinction between deadbeats who don’t plan on paying back their loans and the much greater numbers of people who just don’t have the money to do it. Few policymakers understand what happens to such people once they fall into the clutches of collection agencies, or even who they are.
And for many borrowers, there is no way out. Unlike mortgages and credit card debt, student loans these days cannot be erased through bankruptcy except in rare cases of extreme hardship. And there is no longer any statute of limitation for prosecuting those who fall behind on their loans. As Deanne Loonin, director of the National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project, has written, “Even rapists are not in this category since there is a statute of limitations for rape prosecutions, at least in federal law and in most state laws.”
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