Getting an education was the most expensive decision I ever made. I’m reminded of this every month when the student loan payments exit the checking account in a silent stream of shame.
I know I shouldn’t be embarrassed—sure, I went to a pricey liberal arts college and an expensive for-profit law school, rather than more affordable state schools, but I received a quality education at both for which I remain grateful.
In all honesty, I’m one of the lucky ones; all my loans are federal, and I earn a living wage. Tons of people have it much worse. But I’d be lying if I said that my pride in earning an advanced degree wasn’t tempered by shame because I’m marching steadily toward my 40s with tens of thousands of dollars of debt and no tangible assets other than my car and those into which I married.
On paper, I’m a financial loser, albeit one with excellent credit thanks to those student loan payments. Take it from me, that silver lining does not shine very brightly.
Not only is repaying my student loans distressing and expensive, it’s an enormous pain in the ass from a paperwork perspective. I’m an attorney, so it’s safe to assume I’m reasonably organized and good at filling out forms. To keep my debt in one place, thus saving myself the hassle of multiple lenders, throughout law school, I made sure to designate the same lender for every single loan, the lender with which I consolidated all my undergraduate debt. Talk about an exercise in futility. Since 2008, my loans have been diced up and sold several times, all without my permission, some without even the courtesy of advance notice.
I started out with one loan company. Today I have five. All my loans have been resold at least once, three more than once. This has occurred without my falling behind on payments and without any action on my part. Each sale typically necessitates additional, often duplicitous, paperwork, changes payment deadlines, contact info, etc. Aggravating is an understatement.
The sad truth is that I’m not alone—far from it. There are millions like me, and not just in the generation we now call Millennials and formerly called Generation Y, Generation I and, at least once in memory, Generation Whine. Student loans are crippling the ability of Americans of all ages to own homes, have families, get married, take vacations, retire.
We were taught that you need an education to succeed, and if you don’t have a Daddy Warbucks around to stroke tuition checks, no matter, Uncle Sugar will guarantee you a loan. It was seen as a way to give everyone access to the so-called American Dream. Well, that dream has become a living nightmare. Many of us are stuck living paycheck-to-paycheck because we did what we were told we had to do to better ourselves. Irony can be a cruel bedfellow.
It comes as no surprise that the student loan crisis that has enveloped the nation like a fog is starting to make its dent in the national economy. According to Bloomberg, today Americans have a cumulative $1.4 trillion in student loan debt, which for each individual causes a series of micro and major decisions. As debtors like me put off milestones to pay the likes of Sallie Mae, Wells Fargo and Nelnet, birth rates have plummeted to a 30-year low, home ownership is down, marriages are delayed, and our Baby Boomer parents are unable to take those Viking Cruises that are so popular with the grey hairs these days, because they’re stuck subsidizing that never-gonna-empty nest.
Thankfully, some politicians are starting to get a clue, but right now, it’s a problem with no end in sight. Student loan debts are like herpes: essentially impossible to get rid of. You can’t discharge ’em in bankruptcy and, while federally backed loans have more favorable terms, some private loans have double-digit annual percentage rates, don’t offer grace periods, economic deferrals or income-based repayment. All can garnish wages and, unlike a house or a car, you can’t just give back your education and take a hit on your credit report, so we have no choice but to continue paying, perhaps for the rest of our natural lives.
It’s not getting any better, either. From 2007 to 2017, Bloomberg states, there was a 176 percent increase in student loan debt, which I find astonishing, as I graduated from law school in 2008 with a Rock of Gibraltar-sized debt around my neck. For the amount that I still owe 10 years later, I could buy a shitty house in a decent neighborhood, or a decent house in a shitty neighborhood. If I graduated today, I might could aspire to Avondale.
Just think, if nothing changes, the next generation of graduates might have enough student loan debt to pay for a place in Queen’s Harbour.