First Person Singular
MY NAME IS SCOT ROSS AND I’M A STUDENT LOAN DEBTOR. I know the regret of economic opportunity lost to a loan payment, the shame of living like a college student in a rented apartment until I was nearly forty, and the anger of feeling I’ve been denied the share of the American Dream promised to my generation.
But mine is the story of one of the lucky ones.
I spent the late 1980s and mid-’90s earning an English degree from a state university in Pennsylvania and a two-year master’s degree in Washington, D.C. I also “earned” $62,845.17 in student loan debt on a repayment schedule of thirty years at 7.875 percent, compounded daily.
For fourteen years, I have religiously submitted monthly payments, at first making the minimum and then, as my income rose, increasing my restitution.
I rented apartments until age thirty-seven, and I spent years cruising in a maroon four-door sedan, so old it was still equipped with a cassette player.
But I can see a faint light at the end of the tunnel. I hope to pay off the remaining $23,000 of my debt over the next twenty-four months, liberating myself from what felt over the many years like an economic prison term.
But mine is the story of one of the lucky ones.
I am not the schoolteacher working on a master’s trying to earn a raise only to see my salary capped as public education is attacked in the name of austerity.
I am not the newly unemployed worker who got locked into the for-profit college racket in an attempt to get new skills for a handful of available jobs.
I am not a student whose family is trying to finance higher education in the aftermath of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Nor am I the parent who co-signed my child’s loan, only to see her struggle to repay her debt, and consequently have my retirement savings wiped out or my Social Security garnished.
No, I am one of the lucky ones. And I know it.
I know it from original research on the student loan debt crisis we did at my organization, One Wisconsin Institute. We’re part of the national ProgressNow Education network and a growing national movement to undo student loan debt. Our research shows how the burden of student debt crushes families and drags down the economy.
Here’s one example: Where a bachelor’s degree used to mean paying off your student loans in fewer than ten years, loan terms in Wisconsin now average eighteen years.
But numbers are numbers. More heartbreaking are the stories sent to us by many of the 3,000 men and women who responded to our survey.
Take these stories (names changed to protect the victims):
“At the age of seventeen, I was suckered into a for-profit college with the promises of a job upon graduation and a great degree. Well, I came to find out their employment rates were padded, the instructors were less than helpful, and the school is frowned upon by potential employers. Now at the age of twenty-seven, I have over $45,000 in federal and private student loans. They have been in deferment for over a year because I could not afford to make payments on my income and keep food on the table and a roof over my head.”
“Melanie” continues: “This will not only affect my life, but it will affect my children’s lives as well. Although I know it is not a healthy or reasonable option, I have thought suicide would be my only way out as student loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcy. Until something changes beyond my control, I will just keep trying to stay afloat and praying I win the lottery.”
“Tara” reported: “I finished paying my student loan debt while in my early thirties. Unfortunately, I was not able to save money for my kids’ education so at forty-six I am making payments on the student loans ($15,000 worth) that parents take out when their kids can’t borrow enough money themselves.”
I decided to ask my mom, a retired middle-school reading teacher, about her college debt experience. She was a first-generation college student and the daughter of a farmer and a lunch lady. She went to a state college to get her teaching degree in the late 1960s. Her total expenses for a year of school and room and board were $1,000. She got out of college with a $50-a-month loan payment that ended in five years. She offset many of her costs by working during the summer in a nearby mushroom mine.
Seems a fair investment in education—and a reasonable term of repayment. But it’s such an anachronism. Today, students can no longer work a summer job and part-time during the school year to cover their costs.
Wisconsin state senator Chris Larson knows all too well the epidemic of student loan debt and has personally seen the problem grow because of failed governmental priorities. In fact, the thirty-two-year-old senate Democratic leader notes that years after graduating he is still carrying enormous student loan debt.
“Student loan debt is the looming crisis for our economy,” Larson tells me. “With over $20,000 that I still owe, my family knows first-hand the effects it can have on a household budget. Every time our state budgets shortchange our university and technical college students, we just drive those students further away from their chance at the American Dream.”
Wisconsin, under Governor Scott Walker, had the third-highest decrease in state spending on higher education in 2011, triggering a $107 million tuition hike.
Almost twenty years since rules on student loans were modified to benefit private lenders, it’s time we make real change. We must eliminate special privileges for banks that finance student loans, restore consumer protections like truth in lending requirements, and crack down on abusive collection practices.
If we fail, there will be even fewer of the “lucky” ones, like me.
Scot Ross is the executive director of One Wisconsin Institute, a progressive statewide research and education organization based in Madison, Wisconsin.
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