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Crushing debt: Students finding solutions to avoid or survive loans

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 1 2015 4:36 a.m. MDT

Michelle Naef, front, right, and Mercedes Solari, center, join others in the English 1010 class at Salt Lake Community College in Taylorsville. Graduation rates Monday, July 30, 2012 (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Michelle Naef, front, right, and Mercedes Solari, center, join others in the English 1010 class at Salt Lake Community College in Taylorsville. Graduation rates Monday, July 30, 2012 (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Student loan debt has stolen the pleasure from Stephanie Schroeder's life. She likes lattes, but doesn't buy them. She doesn't dine out or get her nails done, either. At age 49, Schroeder lives from paycheck to paycheck working as an editor at a New York City public relations firm; there are no extras.

The phone rings incessantly in Schroeder's Brooklyn apartment. When she answers, the conversation is always the same. An accented voice recites a robotic script, hounding her about her overdue student loans. But the caller has no answers for her questions.

Government-backed student loan debt has mushroomed in the United States, as have defaults on those loans. About 5.9 million people nationwide are at least 12 months behind on student loan payments, up by a third over the last five years, the New York Times reported on Sept. 8. One-sixth of student loans with a balance are in default, amounting to $76 billion, according to a survey of state-high education executives.

BYU Graduation August 2012 ? commencement exercises on August 9, 2012 in the Marriott Center on the BYU campus. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo) BYU Graduation August 2012 ? commencement exercises on August 9, 2012 in the Marriott Center on the BYU campus. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo)

There are strategies that can help student loan debtors avoid default and its consequences, although recourse is less available than for other debt types. Avoiding over-indebtedness remains a better option than any of the cures. Advance planning can help college students and their families minimize or avoid college loan debt, said Mitchell Weiss, author of the book "College Happens: A Practical Handbook for Parents and Students" and an adjunct professor of finance at Connecticut's University of Hartford.

For Schroeder, 49, it might be too late. She has explored the options for addressing her debt, from deferrals to forbearance to income-based payments. Like millions of student loan debtors, she borrowed when times were better, and the ability to repay seemed certain. And, like many, she bet her future on a high-paying job that never materialized.

Student loan debt has mushroomed in the United States, leading many students to seek out strategies for avoiding or reducing school debt. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo) Student loan debt has mushroomed in the United States, leading many students to seek out strategies for avoiding or reducing school debt. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo)

Postponing day of reckoning

Deferments and forbearances offer ways to skip loan payments during unemployment, a return to college or military service, said Allesandra Lanza-Cosgrove, spokesperson for American Student Assistance, a non-profit company that assists students in managing college loan debt. Deferments are preferable to forbearance, if requirements can be met, because interest does not accrue, she said.

Borrowers should postpone payments only when imperative, though, as reducing monthly payments extends the life of the loan and results in larger interest payments over the long run. "Retire the debt as soon as possible," Lanza-Cosgrove said. "But, if you can't, it's much better to postpone than go into default."

Students and visitors at the University of Utah on President's circle. Graduation rates Monday, July 30, 2012 (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Students and visitors at the University of Utah on President's circle. Graduation rates Monday, July 30, 2012 (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

When a person defaults on a student loan, the IRS can intercept income tax refunds, and the government can garnish paychecks, take Social Security retirement benefits, or sue. The borrower's credit rating will be harmed, making it difficult or impossible to get a credit card, buy a house or finance consumer purchases.

Schroeder knows. She can't get a credit card or a mortgage, and feels that her future holds little promise.

"I'm scared," she said. "I'll never be able to retire. I'll have to work until the day I die."

Income-based payment plans on government loans provide another way to avoid default, Lanza-Cosgrove said. Those who meet financial hardship requirements can have loan payments capped at 15 percent of discretionary income, though interest continues to build over the length of the payment period. After 25 years of repayment and 300 eligible payments, any outstanding balance is forgiven.

ASA's website explains the repayment options. For Schroeder and millions of others, they don't solve the problem of college loan debt, though.

Reality therapy

Shroeder borrowed about $85,000 in college loans 15 years ago to earn a law degree at New York University. The federal government, and the Student Loan Marketing Association, commonly known as Sallie Mae, were her lenders. SLM manages more than $180 billion in debt for more than 10 million borrowers. Originally sponsored by the U.S. government, the company was privatized in 2004.

"I had taken out loans before and paid them off," Schroeder said. "People were talking about getting corporate jobs after law school, and making hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. The debt didn't seem so huge."

She missed passing New York's bar exam by four points, though, and never practiced law. By that time, she knew she wanted to write for a living instead of practicing law. Schroeder has since made payments equaling more than the principal on her loans, but interest kept growing when the loan was in forbearance during jobless periods, and the debt has ballooned to more than $125,000. She worked out an income-based payment plan with Sallie Mae, but it requires a monthly payment of $475. Schroeder said she can't keep up.

"Sallie Mae estimates a median lifestyle and income, not a New York City standard of living, which is way above average," Schroeder said. "I don't earn the kind of money to pay what Sallie Mae thinks I should, and I've run out of all options."

Even bankruptcy offers no relief for most. Student loan debt can't be discharged in bankruptcy except in extremely rare circumstances.

"It's kind of strange that you can't discharge this kind of debt," Schroeder said. "I have a whole group of friends with graduate degrees of every sort who are unemployed or underemployed and don't know what to do."

Whose fault?

Blame for the student loan crisis is shared by three groups, said Weiss. Lenders, including the federal government, are at fault, for predatory practices that make loans too easy to get and just as easy to rationalize — even though they ensnare students in debt they can never get rid of, Weiss said.

Schools are to blame for recruiting practices that convince students to cover high tuition payments with loans, Weiss said. For-profit schools are especially aggressive, he added. The schools have nothing to lose from hard-selling students, even though the job-placement rate figures for for-profit schools are untrustworthy and dismal.

Students share guilt in the student loan crisis for failing to investigate and do adequate research, and for being unrealistic about the chances of repaying their loans.

"There is culpability on all three sides but when all is said and done, the kid is left holding the bag," Weiss said.

Prevention is good medicine: Good planning and a bit of luck allowed Ohio resident Isaac Hess to earn an MBA degree at University of Iowa without incurring any debt. Hess didn't have holdover debt from his undergraduate days because he worked his way through Brigham Young University, living with his parents much of the time.

After graduating, he married — his luckiest move. Camber Hess, his wife, was a registered nurse with a decent-paying job. Both Hesses worked for three years after college before Isaac Hess started graduate school. Their combined incomes could have furnished an upper-middle-class lifestyle, but the couple lived like poor students.

"We discussed it early on," Isaac Hess said. "We wanted to keep our expenses based on our needs, not on our income."

While many of their friends were taking out mortgage loans, the Hesses rented a shabby apartment without a dishwasher near the hospital where Camber worked. The couple shared one car, but tried not to use it. Camber walked to work, and Isaac rode his bicycle to school most days. They did careful research before deciding about graduate school.

Although Isaac Hess was accepted at higher-ranked schools, he chose University of Iowa, still a top-50 MBA school, because of the school's good financial aid possibilities. His graduate assistantship at U. of I. provided a tuition discount and small salary. The couple continued living small, stretching Camber's nursing salary to make ends meet.

After receiving his MBA degree, debt-free, Isaac Hess got a well-paying job at a marketing research firm in Cincinnati. He has no regrets about choosing U. of I. over more expensive schools with higher rankings.

"Many people who get an MBA graduate with $100,000 in debt," Hess said. "When choosing a graduate school people don't really think about how much debt they are incurring, and whether it will really pay off in the long run."

More strategies: Weiss said college debt can be a good thing, but only if its is used wisely. He offered strategies for keeping borrowing at a minimum. He recommends attending a community college — where tuition is typically half as much as at four-year schools, then transferring credits to a more prestigious school.

"Speaking as an employer, if I were filling a position that required a college degree, it would matter less to me where the student started than where they ended up," he said.

Taking tests to knock out credits and beginning interest payments while still in school are other strategies he approves. Weiss also recommends that students experience a "Zen moment" regarding the monthly payment attached to any loan they consider.

"There are plenty of online tools for figuring out whether it will be affordable," he said. "You shouldn't borrow more than you would reasonably expect to earn in your first year out of college, and payments should be less than 10 percent of your gross salary. Give yourself breathing room."

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