Caitlin Tremblay Explores The Other Side of The Student Debt Crisis

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By Caitlin Tremblay

A lot has been said about the severity of the student loan debt crisis in the United States. Much of the discussion, however, has centered on the perils of overpriced private schools; schools like New York University, which jack up tuition rates when endowments don’t raise “enough” money and get cozy with big banks to dole out student loans to unsuspecting freshmen.

What hasn’t been focused on, and what is more unsettling, is the five-digit debt some students are accumulating at public schools. Public schools are supposed to be the economical way to go about getting a higher education. They receive government funding and can keep tuition low, but it’s the hidden fees and living expenses that are upping the amount of debt for students trying to make the money-friendly college choice.

Christina is a senior at CUNY’s John Jay College and is $58,497 in debt—over twice the amount the average student has after earning a four-year degree. Why so much debt? While John Jay only costs $5,500 a year, she paid $13,999 per year for three years to live in the dorms. The dorms, called The Towers, are a CUNY-wide residence not directly affiliated with John Jay, and she was essentially forced to live there because, while an apartment in Harlem would be cheaper, her student loans can’t be used toward rent.

The Towers were Christina’s only option if she wanted to go to John Jay—the best school for what she wants to do, which is work for the FBI. Commuting from Long Island would leave her little time for homework and her part-time job, and paying for an apartment out of pocket was out of the question. Christina now lives in an off-campus apartment with three other roommates, but her costs are still rising. Tuition increases every year, and she still has two more years of graduate work to complete.

Her situation is all too common in the CUNY and SUNY systems, state schools that are supposed to level the economic playing field but are having to increase their tuition because of budget cuts and the floundering economy.

In his 2010 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said, “No one should go broke because they chose to go to college.” Well, they are, and it’s escalating into the largest financial crisis our country has ever seen.

The amount of student loan debt in the U.S. will top $1 trillion next year. According to the Department of Education, there are over 1.4 million students in student loan debt. Collectively, they owe $829 billion, a number that recently topped the amount of credit card debt in the nation for the first time ever.

Student debt is growing at a rate of $90 billion a year, according to Alan Nasser, professor of political economy at Evergreen State College and author of The Student Loan Swindle.

“The extraordinary growth of student debt paralleled the bubble years, from the beginnings of the dotcom bubble in the mid- 1990s to the housing bubble,” Nasser said. “In the build-up to the housing crisis, the major ratings agencies used by the biggest banks gave high ratings to mortgage-backed securities that were, in fact, toxic. A similar pattern is evident in student loans.” The default rate for student loans is 25 percent— the same as the mortgage default rate at the height of the housing crisis.

Only 40 percent of student loans are being repaid, while the other 35 percent are delinquent, meaning payments have been missed. According to the Department of Education, this is the lowest repayment rate the student loan industry has ever seen, and there aren’t many options for those in financial trouble.

A diploma can’t be repossessed and basic consumer protections don’t apply. Student loans can’t be discharged in bankruptcy (unlike, say, gambling debts), the statute of limitations for a collection agency to sue a borrower does not apply, student loans don’t need to adhere to state usury laws, which cap interest rates, and federal student loan debt collectors don’t need to adhere to the fair debt collection rules. They can call as much as they want, whenever they want and can garnish wages and withhold tax refunds. It’s gotten so out of control that students have resorted to lying on their loan application forms to get more federal aid or setting up websites to panhandle for money on the Internet.

Elizabeth Warren, the brain behind the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and a current Massachusetts senate candidate, has spoken out about the toxicity of student loans. “Student loan debt collectors have a power that would make a mobster envious,” she recently told the Wall Street Journal. Because of the lack of regulation, borrowers default, lose their homes, have their wages garnished, tax returns confiscated— livelihoods are lost. And nothing substantial has been done to change this.

Just a few weeks ago, hundreds of CUNY students took to the streets to protest tuition hikes and were joined by members of the Occupy Wall Street movement. These students are afraid that the once-affordable place to earn a degree will soon be out of their reach unless they take out more and more loans. Experts predict that, eventually, there will be no more money to loan to those who want to go to college because loan providers keep losing money on the increasing defaults. This is particularly frightening for the federal government, which provides 10 times as much in student loans as private lenders do.

“If the government runs out of loan money it would be much worse than any burst mortgage bubble,” said Mark Katrowitz, a financial aid expert who runs finaid.org. “The entire economy would collapse.”

Christina has accepted the fact that she’ll be paying her loans back for a long, long time.

“I think I’ll be paying them back for the rest of my life,” she said. “Government jobs don’t pay very well, but I’ll retire with great benefits.”

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