Gracias, Discover Student Loans

A while back, I posted about Discover Student Loans offering me a 2% graduation reward on my account. Well, I checked my account today and noticed my current balance was lower than I thought it should be. I looked at my account history and they applied that 2% reduction in my principal within two weeks of my accepting it!

So I’m sending my thanks to Discover Student Loans. They’re operating in a way that Wells Fargo only wishes they could. They actually value their customers and treat them right.

Positive Snowball Effect

To add on the good news from the past week and a half, I received a letter yesterday from one of my lenders, Discover Student Loans, congratulating me on my graduation. That’s nice, if late, but the really nice gesture is that they offer a graduation reward in the form of a 2% reduction in my principal balance.

They even gave me the option of depositing it into my checking account or applying it directly to the loan balance. I applied it to the balance. The loan is pretty substantial, too, which means the benefit to me is pretty big: $440! Excellent news, indeed. So, thanks to Discover! (I guess it really does pay to Discover.) Wells Fargo should take a page from Discover’s playbook.

Today, I spoke with a producer from Marketplace Money and told her my student loan story. She wasn’t sure if they could help, especially since I’d already spoken to an attorney who couldn’t offer any advice, but checked with a resident expert, and it turns out they might be able to help. We set up an interview for this Friday and hopefully, they’ll be able to shed some light on what my options are. I’ve got my fingers crossed!

I’m really liking this positive momentum, and I hope it continues! It’s a welcome change.

Students, Beware: A Cautionary Tale of Student Debt

Enter At Your Own Risk by Daniel Jeffries

Getting an education is required for success in today’s world. Many people grudgingly attend college merely because studies prove that people with bachelor’s degrees earn around a million dollars more in their lifetimes than people who just have a high school diploma. This diploma race has escalated even further; now, a bachelor’s degree is the equivalent of a high school diploma in the business world, and master’s degrees are the new standard. We’ll probably see more and more people racing to get those in the coming years. “What’s your point?” you ask? Education is important. No, it’s vital to a person’s livelihood. It’s what can break the vicious cycle of generational poverty. It enlightens us as a society, allowing us to understand cross-cultural differences and come to common understandings. It can make the difference between war and peace, of life and death, of prosperity and poverty, of acceptance and bigotry, of love and hatred.

It can also be one of the most expensive ventures a person will ever undertake. I should know; in my five years of undergraduate studies, I racked up about $108,000 in student loan debt. Yes, that’s 108 with three zeros. Now that I’m out of college, I’m in the middle of a battle for my livelihood. I’m not alone, either. In 2010, student loan debt in the U.S. surpassed the amount of credit card debt. The total? Around $830 billion. In 2011, the number was estimated at $1 trillion. To make a long story short (click here for the long story), I owe a lot of money to student loan companies. I’m in good standing with six of them, which accounts for half my student debt. One loan had an extra long grace period and came due suddenly last January. It also happened to be the largest of all my student loans: $50,000. The loan had been sold from Campus Door to Wells Fargo, and my first knowledge of this was when I received the first collection call. Unbeknownst to me, the grace period had ended and this new company was demanding its money.

My monthly payments for all my other student loans totaled a little more than $700 a month. Pretty steep already, especially when you make $1800 a month, and the majority of them are private loans. I was making the payments and just scraping by. Eating off the dollar menu for weeks on end. Scraping together quarters, dimes and nickels to by a dollar cheeseburger from McDonald’s. Riding my bike 30 miles for a haircut from my friend’s grandmother because I couldn’t afford gasoline or a haircut. It was tough, and honestly, quite depressing. But I was doing it. Then, this bombshell from Wells Fargo.

My monthly payment for this new loan that had come due was $395, bringing my monthly student loan payments to over $1100. Already facing the daunting task of paying the others, this was simply something I couldn’t do. I didn’t make enough money to pay my existing student loan bills, rent and utilities, let alone groceries, gasoline or anything else. This extra $395 for Wells Fargo couldn’t even be part of that equation. When all was said and done, for at least two weeks of each month, I literally had nothing in the bank. Nothing. I actually began each month with a $300-400 deficit, making it only that much harder with each passing month.

When I spoke with representatives from Wells Fargo on the phone, none showed any interest in working out a payment plan to cover the back payments I owed. They wanted their money right then, no questions asked. In fact, one Wells Fargo representative even had the audacity to suggest that I stop paying all my other creditors and just pay Wells Fargo. That’s not a solution. It would be incredibly dumb on anyone’s part to do such a thing. I tried to arrange a meeting with a credit counseling service and couldn’t even do that because of the nature of student loan debt: there are no protections for students and lenders of student loans refuse to work with any credit counseling agency. It was quite clear at that point that I needed to find a better-paying job.

So I did a very tough thing: with a heavy heart, I left a job that I absolutely loved for one that paid more. But I didn’t just leave a job, I left my city. I flipped my entire life upside down and moved across the state to take a job in a place I didn’t know, and the only reason I did it was due to Wells Fargo demanding payment. Before I quit my beloved job in Tulsa, though, I had already begun making even more painful cuts at home in order to pay Wells Fargo. I began making monthly payments, in full, to Wells Fargo, even before I was able to get this new job. And I continued making regular, monthly payments, on time and in full. That wasn’t enough, though. They wanted me to make double payments to catch up. Double. I’m struggling to make regular payments, and they want double. Because it’s so easy to do that. I couldn’t, not even on my new salary. $1100 a month is more than a lot of people’s mortgages. $1500 a month is astronomical and practically impossible.

After Thanksgiving, I received notice that Wells Fargo declared the loan in default. They wanted all $50,000-something right then. A few days before the end of the year, I received another letter from them, this time, wanting to settle for only $25,000 (roughly). If I could pay them $25,000 within 30 days, they’d call it good and move on. Well, if I had $25,000 lying around, I wouldn’t have been behind on the loan, now would I? After much research and consulting with an attorney, I’ve verified one thing: there are no protections for student borrowers. None. Zilch. Nada. The student loan companies have all the power and the student borrowers have none. There’s nothing a bankruptcy can do, not even a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which would simply result in a court-prescribed repayment plan based on one’s income. You can’t touch a student loan company, period.

Let me be clear: I don’t want to pay less than I borrowed. I don’t expect the loans to simply disappear. I’m not an Occupy protester that wants my student loan debt wiped away. I want to pay for what I borrowed And I need to pay it. But I need to be able to live, to eat, to pay rent, buy gasoline or get my hair cut. And I need Wells Fargo, one of the largest banks in the world, to show a little decency and work with me. I can’t make a quadruple payment, and I can’t give them $25,000 within thirty days. What I can do is make regular payments. And they’ve refused to make any sort of arrangements that would allow me to catch up.

If I’m ever financially secure enough, I’d love to establish a center for the protection of student borrowers. I want laws to be rewritten. I want student loan companies to actually work with their borrowers instead of bullying them. Every other type of debt–every one of them–except for student debt, have built-in protections of some sort for borrowers. Why is it that in a country falling so far behind the rest of the world educationally, the government wouldn’t provide basic protections for student borrowers? We need a highly educated workforce. We need a highly educated society. We push our young people into college and throw them to the sharks without so much as a life jacket. What kind of message is that to send to our youth, to our future leaders?

Students, beware: there is no protection for you.

If there’s a way out of this mess, I haven’t found it. If you or anyone you know has experienced something similar to this, or if you know anyone college-bound, or an expert in student loan law, please, I’m begging you, forward this post to them. There’s got to be a solution. There must be. I’m hoping Elizabeth Warren, champion of consumer protections, will read this and automatically know what to do. I know I’m not alone. There are thousands of student borrowers in my same situation. We just need some help. Even lawyers are baffled. I could fight to change the laws, according to one attorney, but he wouldn’t recommend that fight. According to a colleague he consulted, people in my situation are “shit out of luck” and caught in a terribly terrifying version of Catch-22. What a great place to be.

Knowledge is power. Or is it?

Cherry Street Homes, originally uploaded by dsjeffries.

I could own one of these homes right now. I could have an adorable bungalow with a big front porch, porch swing and perfectly-mowed lawn. I could even add a picket fence, gardens, shutters and grand oaks.

I could have all that. But that’s not what I want. That was never my dream.

Instead of pursuing this, the penultimate American Dream we’re all taught to want, I chose to educate myself, and that might have been a terrible decision. Homes and land typically gain in value, build equity and become a part of one’s net worth, once they’re paid for. It’s something each post-World War II generation has aspired to. It’s an investment, a wealth-builder, and a statement to all that you’ve made it in the world.

Education is viewed as a pathway to wealth, but not necessary a wealth-builder in and of itself. It provides a foundation of knowledge, and is somewhat of a starting line. To obtain X, Y or Z, a degree is required. We’re all told that knowledge is power. But there’s a catch: it comes with a price. In fact, it can often come with a heftier price tag than most people’s first homes, especially if one chooses to attend a private university.

For a very long time, the United States has lagged behind almost every other industrialized nation in terms of educational achievement. Several factors are to blame, including plentiful manufacturing jobs that required little education, a culture that views education as an elitist, snobbish, out-of-touch endeavor, and a system that refuses to aid students and their families.

Countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Germany offer free education for all residents (they even offer it to foreigners). Anyone can study at university if they want, regardless of their societal status or ability to pay. Students and professors are held to higher academic standards. Since they don’t have to work full- or part-time jobs while in school, students dedicate themselves to their studies, and many end up earning several degrees.

In the United States, there is no free education. Whereas people in those Scandinavian countries are encouraged to obtain multiple degrees to compete in the global workforce, in the United States, you’re lucky if you can obtain and pay for just one. Here, students compete for academic or performance-based scholarships, and then must figure out, mostly on their own, how to pay for the remaining balance. Unless their family is wealthy or they have a college savings fund, their only recourse is student loans.

Student loans come in just a couple forms. There are federal student loans, in which the student borrows money from the government, and private loans, in which students borrow from corporate banks and creditors. The former can be either subsidized or non-subsidized and generally offer low interest rates, but they are limited to families who fall within certain income levels. The latter is a cash cow for lenders who have only one interest: profits.

Because there is no free, universal education system in the United States, students graduate with exorbitant debts. According to the U.S. Department of Education, one quarter of students borrowed $30,526 or more in 2007-08, and one tenth borrowed $44,668 or more. Repayment on that debt begins within 6 months upon graduation, so it’s important that students find a high-paying job immediately upon commencement. If they can’t find a job, or find a job but not one that pays well, default becomes a real possibility. Who’s there to help when someone gets behind on payments, or doesn’t make enough money to pay in full each month (which is a certainty for those who work in non-profits)? Surely, there must be an organization that helps students figure out the best options, find a way forward when they get into trouble…

The sobering reality is that there is no support system for university graduates with student loan debts. Trust me, I’ve looked. There are many organizations out there to help consumers with bad credit card debts or who fall behind on their mortgages, but not on student loans. So, after investing four or five years of your life in improving your skills and gaining valuable knowledge, you’re left to fend for yourself against the tyrannical corporate hooligans that you’ll have to deal with for up to 20 years after graduation.

My Story
I graduated from the University of Tulsa with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, emphasis in Marketing. When I began as a freshman, I had won several scholarships, including the University’s Provost Scholarship, the Mabel Hildreth Crook Scholarship, an academic scholarship, a music scholarship, the Sam Walton Scholarship and the Oklahoma Heritage Association Scholarship. These scholarships covered a majority of the costs of tuition.

I lived at home and commuted each day, participating in marching band, Habitat for Humanity, the Student Senate, symphonic winds, basketball band and other organizations. After completing my sophomore year, I transfered to Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. When I discovered what a terrible school that was, I transfered back to the University of Tulsa before completing one semester at MMC. Upon returning, I was informed that I could not receive any of my previous scholarships or financial aid. I was determined to become the first person in my family to graduate with a college degree, so I began taking out private loans to cover the cost of school.

With the economic downturn of 2008, it became nearly impossible to get student loans. After several instances where my finishing school was in serious jeopardy, I was able to secure just enough funding and graduated in December, 2009. I was fortunate enough to secure a job before graduation at an environmental non-profit doing all aspects of marketing, advertising, communications, event planning, and graphic and web design.

I had done it. It was a dream come true.

By the numbers
Number of student loans? 13. Total student loan debt? $100,000. Most of the loans entered repayment after six months. One or two entered repayment at nine months. The final, and by far the largest, entered repayment at twelve months. That’s the one that broke my back. My monthly payments are now over $1100 a month. To put that into perspective, that’s more than my parents’ house payment. I bring in a mere $1780 per month after taxes and insurance, which means that 63% of my income goes straight to student loan payments. Add in rent ($495), utilities ($65), other installment payments ($40) and transportation ($50) and that leaves $27 per month to buy food, toiletries or other necessities. It’s an impossible financial situation. Of course I can’t eat on $27 per month. At my current income level, my basic, essential living expenses outweigh my income by around $300 a month. It’s not even living paycheck-to-paycheck. I can’t live this way. It’s not good for my emotional or physical well-being. And I know that I’m not the only person in this situation. I don’t want a handout. I don’t want my debt to be forgiven. I just want guidance, a way out, a compromise that will let me pay what I can and still be able to eat…

Why do it?
I live a modest but meaningful life. I don’t buy extravagant things (I don’t even buy “regular” things), I don’t take vacations, I don’t go out to bars or clubs… I volunteer, and work to improve the community and environment, I perform professional services as favors for friends, and try to ‘pay it forward’. What exactly has it gotten me? Good karma? Respect? A sense of self? A strong work ethic? Probably. But those things don’t pay the bills, and creditors simply do not care how much good you’ve done in the world.

My heart is in non-profits. It’s in helping people. The only problem with non-profits is that there’s no profit to be had. I’m proof of that. I’ve been told by someone that I shouldn’t be so “obsessed with money”. I’m not obsessed with making a million dollars, or having the biggest house or nicest car. I am only obsessed with money to the extent that I want to be able to pay my bills and buy food without inducing ulcers; to live without the pain and fear created by not even having enough money to pay for basic necessities. Anyone who considers that “obsessed” should take a long, hard look at themselves and their priorities. It is more painful than you can imagine. It is more emotionally disturbing than you can imagine. It is more heartbreaking than you can fathom. There’s a reason that financial problems are one of the main causes of depression, divorce and suicide: there is no safety net for those most at risk.

Where do I go from here?
When figuring out how you’re going to eat the next day is always top-of-mind, it’s hard to even begin picturing a way out. Your mind is focused on one thing. So how do I get myself out of this terrible situation? Should I look for a new job that pays more? Should I take on a second job at nights and weekends? Should I sell my belongings to make due in the short term? If I look for another job, should I look in another city, or another country? I don’t have any answers, just ulcers and a sleep problem. It’s not as easy as most people think. We’re living through a period of economic distress not seen by any generation since the Great Depression. Jobs are scarce, the deck is stacked, and banks are still the heartless, soulless machines they’ve always been.

Maybe I should’ve chosen to pursue the American Dream instead of trying to improve myself and the the world around me. So much for the old “knowledge is power” adage. “Scientia omnia vincit?” Not hardly. Not in America. The Scandinavian countries I mentioned earlier have it figured out: highly-educated people are valuable, and education should be something everyone has access to; not something they have to kill themselves working for.

Anyone out there with a panacea?