In Their Own Words: Student Debt Stories from Illinoisans

This is part of an ongoing series by Higher Ed, Not Debt highlighting student debt issues and personal stories across several states.

The student debt crisis in the United States continues to grow, and the impact of the crisis is being felt across the lives of 44 million people across the country. Totaling at $1.5 trillion nationwide, student debt has a significantly debilitating effect on the lives of students and families. It presents a fundamental issue that majorities of the public want to see addressed.

Collectively, Illinois borrowers owe more than $56 billion in federal and private student loan debt. While data on the total number of federal and private student loan borrowers is limited, we at least know that the total number of federal student loan borrowers in Illinois is above 1.5 million, according to the office of Federal Student Aid. Including people who only took out private loans, the total number of borrowers is expected to be higher.

In 2017, 61% of BA graduates in the state incurred student debt from an ever-increasing price of higher education – their financial futures foreclosed upon due to this debt. On average, Illinoisans who graduated from public or private 4-year colleges owe more than $29,200 in student loans: the 24th highest average in the country.

However, this debt doesn’t just come from college tuition and fees alone. In addition to the holistic costs of the college experience (housing, food, transportation, materials, etc), students may find themselves deeper in debt because of predatory practices by student loan servicers. Hundreds of thousands of borrowers are subject to the exploitative practices of student loan companies that increase borrowers’ debt burdens through sloppy servicing and deceptive counseling practices.

Others are victims of for-profit college scams. After the uncovering of widespread fraud and abuse among some of the largest for-profit college chains, defrauded borrowers are still left holding the bag.

To best show the real affects of the student debt crisis, we want to go beyond data alone. We want to share some the stories that Illinoisans submitted to us that illustrate the many ways that student debt is impacting their lives, and their calls to fix this crisis.

The debilitating impacts of student debt:

“I borrowed $90,000 for my film degree at Columbia College Chicago. But because I couldn’t pay my loans on time and I was forced to do forbearance, I now owe $145,000. This has caused so much hardship on me and my family and I can never pursue my dreams because of this hanging over my head. I’ve had to work multiple jobs. I feel like I was definitely taken advantage of as a young 1st generation Mexican American student, without any guidance and counseling advice. Please pardon some of my loan!”
~ Jonathan I.

“All of my friends and colleagues who have student debt dream of winning the lottery. But not a multi million dollar jackpot, we just want to win enough to pay off our student loans. Not a month goes by where I don’t say I wish I had that $550 to save for my daughter or spend on needed improvements. I basically have fallen into a gap, one where I make slightly too much to qualify for any reduction program, but not enough where I can comfortably pay my loan each month.”
~Christopher S.

“I have one adult child that just graduated from a Big Ten school and another about to go into higher education. We have had to work two, sometimes three jobs just to stay in our home. No frills. No vacations, certainly no savings or retirement… Now we have massive debt and more is expected. It’s time to start investing in our future again and to make education affordable without condemning parents to a future without retirement and young adults to a future of a lifetime of debt.” 
~ David M.

Problems with student loan companies and predatory for-profit colleges::

“I spent two years working as an unpaid federal prosecutor, during which time my loans just kept accruing and for which I will get no credit towards the public service repayment plan. When I switched to work for local government, Sallie Mae and Navient made qualifying for IBR a nightmare and my payments were higher than my coworkers for no apparent reason. I missed the PAYE deadline by about one semester, as well, and that extra money felt crushing when not earning a lot as a public servant. I now work for legal aid representing consumers in unfair debt and consumer practices cases. The cases I bring on a daily basis remind me constantly of the abuses of the student loan system. It should be criminal, the way the student loan industry operates.”
~ Kate L.

“Got a BS from American Intercontinental University. [I] Found out I couldn’t use [the kind of degree I received] unless I wanted to be a cop. [I] Learned that AFTER I spent $45k. I’m not physically able to be a police officer even if I WANTED to. I’m back in school through a community program since I can’t get financial aid because of this loan for a degree I can’t use. [I] Can’t get a home, buy a car, or even a TV on credit. [The] Loan company wants more than I earn as a monthly payment. This school saw me coming…Since 2007, approximately $20,000 has been added in fees, penalties, and interest. For the last two years, I’ve been on the income driven repayment plan. Navient has still been sending me intimidating letters trying to trick me into sending more than I’m required to send. I’m terrified that I’ll never get out from under this debt. “
~ Anita H.

“I went to ITT Tech where I was deceived into attending their organization for my higher education. I was promised jobs that never happened, and constantly pressured into signing loan documents with no time to go over them properly. Also on the contract that they claimed I signed is a forgery. As far as the student loans the federal loans have great programs to try and be affordable. However the private loans have zero programs for repayment, and the only time my loan servicer was willing to work with me was when I almost defaulted on them. Trying a repaying my student loans is an overall nightmare, because the payments for both my federal and private loans is equal to 33% of my monthly income. The only reason that number is not 50% is because I can put my federal loans into the IBR program.”
~ Joseph M.

“I have over $20,000 in debt for a degree that will only qualify me for a career that pays no more than just over minimum wage. I ask how that is to improve my future and that of my children when I couldn’t find a full-time job for over a year. The payments are unaffordable on a loan that size and would take over 10 years to pay off. I got a couple months of job placement help but the temporary job I was placed in last year, I did the work in getting that job on my own. Same goes for the full-time position I have now, even though it only pays just over minimum wage. Corinthian promised a better future, not a daily struggle to make ends meet!”
~ Naomi S.

“I graduated from Everest college with a medical assistant diploma never got my certification can’t get a job I’m currently unemployed my loan is in deferment but the interest is steadily rising. My credit score is terrible…I can’t even get a car because my score is so low because I can’t make the payment on my student loans on time.” 
~ Amanda F.

“Navient has a large amount of my loans. All my borrowers received my Income Based repayment paperwork for 2018, although somehow Navient didn’t. They now want $995 a month. Place is a scam shop.”
~ Colin R.

These people could be your neighbors, your co-workers, they could even be you or members of your family. Their stories are relatable, and therein lies the problem: too many people are suffering under student debt, and more will if we don’t tackle college costs and crack-down on predatory practices by industry. We must solve this student debt crisis for Illinoisans and for the rest of the country.

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