In Their Own Words: Student Debt Stories from Wisconsinites

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, Wisconsin borrowers owe more than $24 billion in federal and private student loan debtWhile 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 Wisconsin is above 690,000, 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, 64% of BA graduates in the state incurred debt from an ever-increasing price of higher education. On average, Wisconsinites who graduated from public or private 4-year colleges owe more than $29,500 in student loans: the 21st 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 Wisconsinites 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 have nearly $80,000 in my own student debt as well as $75,000 for my oldest son in a PLUS loan. I cannot pay these off. I am a Federal employee but between my mortgage, expenses and just living day to day, I cannot afford the $1800/month Student loan payment. I try to stay in school part time so that my loans can stay in deferment but this is also making things very difficult for me. I have a major medical disability that makes it hard for me to keep my full time job, let alone go to school all the time and run a household.”
~ Laura S.

“I am an immigrant who came to the United States because I believed this country was equitable and just. I became a citizen in 1996. I earned a Master degree in Public Health in 1997. As a single mother I could not make the payments thus debt grew exorbitantly…I am 52 years old with at $300,000+ student loan debt. I pay $1200 every month and according to lender my last payment will be in December of 2043! I will be 80 years of age so I fear about my SS being garnished as well. I pray every day for no crisis or emergency for I don’t have the funds….”
~ Virginia Z.

“I had $16,000 in student debt when I left grad school. I became a single father of my 3 year old daughter. We were homeless in Madison, WI. After grad school I had to resign a career with the US Forest Service as an archaeologist in order to raise my daughter from the age of 2 1/2 years. I moved back to my home in northern Wisconsin on the Bad River Indian Reservation. Jobs are/were scarce and unemployment in Ashland County is high. I’ve had numerous part-time, or full-time low paying positions since 1996. Never earned enough to make their $400+ a month student loan payments they were demanding. Thus I am in default even though I’ve paid back more than $34,000 to date via Federal tax intercept since 1996. I currently work at a Federal Head Start program as a bus driver/maintenance at $8.50 an hour. I will be 63 years old on my next birthday. Now I’ve been threatened that they’ll reduce my social security to pay these loans. The Great Lakes Higher Education representative recently told me that I still owe the original $16,000!”
~ Patrick M.

Problems with student loan companies:

“I am a financial aid administrator at a private college. The heavy load carried by students who hold loans is already significant. Servicers who don’t treat their customers (loan borrowers) honestly are being irresponsible and unethical. Navient has been faulted repeatedly for its lack of good service to borrowers.”
~ Judith S.

Victims of predatory for-profit colleges:

“I signed up online to receive more information about Everest. Almost immediately I was receiving non stop phone calls from the school. I decided to take a tour of Everest, hoping that would make the calls stop. After the tour I felt badgered into signing up for classes. After joining the school I still received many calls for over a month. I went thru the Medical Assistant program and have not had a MA job since I graduated, in 2011. Because I went to Everest most employers did not want to hire me. I was lucky to find a place to do my externship, when I did it as not for a MA job but a CNA. I had to take what I could get at the time. I deeply regret going to Everest and have had a hard time paying my student loans for something I will probably never use. I am happy the schools are closing so this will not happen to others.”
~ Megan L.

“I attended Everest Institute in Dearborn, MI. They promised me that I would be able to get a job right out of school and also implied that we would be certified, none of that was true. Even on the externship, the [professor] I had was not competent and did many things wrong that we were taught never to do at school, In order to get a job with any dentist I would have to go back to school again. This was in 2007-2008 and I still haven’t found a job and I am knee deep in student debt because of the loans, I really regret going back to school, I wish I didn’t feel that way but I do, because it didn’t make my life better it made it worse!”
~ Taryn G.

“ITT Tech [had] promised to help with employment for my lifetime, which 2 years into my degree it was “cut” from budget. I have been defrauded from ITT Tech along with a number of other students, left with over $70,000 of debit and over 15% interest on my student loans. This is so unfair”
~ Humberto M.

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 Wisconsinites  and for the rest of the country.

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