In Their Own Words: Student Debt Stories from Pennsylvanians

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, Pennsylvania borrowers owe more than $61 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 Pennsylvania is above 1.6 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, 67% 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, Pennsylvanians who graduated from public or private 4-year colleges owe more than $36,800 in student loans: the 2nd 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 Pennsylvanians 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 graduated from a state university after 5 1/2 years due to major change and learning disabilities with a teaching degree and $100K in debt for out-of-state tuition. Only 1 month after graduation I discovered that I now needed duel certification in order to teach and therefore needed to go back to college for another year. I have been working the past 3 years with adults with MR and do not even take home enough income each month to equal the required monthly payment on my loans let alone move out of my parent’s house and support myself. I will be paying on them forever and the interest rates on the private ones are 15%. I am going back to college…for the additional certification at the cost of another $27k in student loans.”
~ Kristina K.

“I am retired already with health issues, and my student debt instead of going down is going up every month. I borrowed $47,000 in 1988 and my debt went up to $67,000 with added interest accumulated to the principal…and they add interest every month because I am on special payment arrangement. In 2008 my debt was $123,00 and now is $145,000. I have written letters expressing my concern but letters are ignored. I know I will die and I will not finish paying, which is very depressing to me.”
~ Felicita C.

“When I graduated from undergrad and grad school in 2000, I owed $60,000 in principal, but with the high interest rate of 7.8% that I have been LOCKED INTO (for my own protection, I’m told. My brother graduated from undergrad just 6 months later at a 1.6% rate), the total with interest is $120,000. I have been paying roughly $600 on my loans for the past 15 years and I still owe about $40,000 total. That’s a crime. I have paid my dues many times over and the only reason I have been able to do so is because of my husband’s salary. I am a general education teacher who now works in higher education. There is no way I would have been able to pay what I have on my own. The whole process is disgusting.” 
~ Margo M.

“My husband is disabled and i am the sole support for our family. We declared bankruptcy due to an excessive amount of debt from various medical bills. We let our house go into foreclosure and lost everything, except my student loan debt. I cannot take anymore time on forebarence – I used it all when I broke a leg. We do not qualify for financial hardship. Our bankruptcy attorney told us not to even try to get my student loan debt written off. I feel so overwhelmed and frustrated!”
~ Cassie N.

“I grew up in a small town from a low income family. My parents always strived to give my brother and I the best that they could. Since we had such a limited income, my parents were not able to save money to send us to college. Since I was 11 years old it has been my dream to become a special education teacher. I had to take out thousands upon thousands of dollars to go to college. I did it, not realizing how extreme my payments were going to be afterwards. They never share that information with you when you are requesting a student loan! I went through college and got my degree in Elementary/Special Education. For four years now, I have been working in my dream job as a special education teacher. I absolutely love my job and wouldn’t change a thing. However, my $1100 a month in student loan payments is crippling me. It makes me absolutely disgusted and frustrated that there is little help or relief programs. Luckily, I have one more year of teaching before I can apply to have some of my federal loans forgiven for teaching in a needed area. My private loans are another story. There is absolutely no help with those loans. It is sickening and saddening to me that I will be paying off these loans for the next 30+ years probably. With the sky-high interest rates, I feel as though they will never get paid off. We need to reform our student loan debt policies!”
~ Kayla G.

Problems with student loan companies:

“[Navient] has been nothing but a nightmare for me and for my parents, even though I am now eight years removed from college. The first five years specifically were the worst because they would state that different loan amounts were due at different times, yet not always communicate that ahead of time. Thus when a payment is late or missed, they wreck your credit score – they also hit my parents credit score who prior to that, had a credit score of over 800. How [Navient] is able to operate blindly behind a website an thousands of un-credible ‘customer service’ agents is amazing. I guess it’s possible when they’re protected by the Government though.”
~ Billy O.

“I have borrowed approx. $65,000 in student loans to complete my education. Since I graduated with my first degree in 1999, the $48k I have borrowed then has ballooned to way more double in compounding interest from years of consolidation and [Navient] suggesting I forebear my loans when I could not pay. Not outlining or making me aware of the consequences of doing so long term. Since I graduated with my first degree and Associates In Graphic Design and then secured my Bachelors in Marketing and Management (of which I only paid for a small portion with loans) my loan debt has hit $150,000, mostly in interest…I filed chapter 13 because I am still unable to pay the loan payment. This makes me very fearful of my future.”
~ Kelley W.

Victims of predatory for-profit colleges:

“[I] Went to a for-profit PhD mill where the faculty were adjunct. My committee chair was an adjunct faculty and left the program without notice. My PhD was destroyed after 18 months because the school had no plan for the departure of the adjunct faculty member. The school should have never allowed an adjunct to chair a dissertation. In the end I had finished my PhD except for my dissertation, could not put the letters after my name, and still had all the debt to pay off. Terrible outcome.”
~ Steven J.

“I quit a job making 15/hr to go to school at WyoTech. Did great- 4.0 GPA…After school I tried to start an upholstery shop, couldn’t get funding. Tried to get a job anywhere in the auto field…only to end up making 13/hr in the same manufacturing field that I left. I spent $40k and went backwards!!! I keep putting off my loans because of economic hardship and may never get ahead. Potential upholstery customers have seen that Corinthian was closing and why, and in turn cancelled jobs I had lined up with them. How do I get ahead. My businessCArd shows that I am a graduate of WyoTech 2012 … I guess that will have to change. I can’t afford to live like this … PLEASE HELP, I was promised better.”
~ David D.

“I graduated from ITT Tech (a for profit school) in 2006. My degree was in computer networking. I have never been able to get a job in the field for which I studied. I was never given an option for aid or grants etc. When I was introduced to the financial rep, he immediately started the paperwork for applying for loans. – – Upon graduation I owed approx $40k in both federal and private loans. Due to unemployment or under employment in the 8 years since graduation I have been forced to use deferments several times. I have faulted on my loans several times simply due to inability to pay. I would say that 90% of the time I made my payments and even made them on time. – – As of today I owe approx $50k in both federal and private loans. I owe $10k more than when I started paying. I had decent credit before I got loans. Prior to going back to school I was able to get a $10k loan for a car, I got a $10k loan to buy a house. I could go in to my credit union and take out a loan almost on my word. Now that is all gone. The only credit I have is bad. I cannot get a loan for a car, or house. I cannot file bankruptcy. I am in limbo and my life is on hold. – – I am in the same situation as hundreds of thousands of others. All we are guilty of is trying to make a better life for ourselves and we are being punished.”
~ Alexander B.

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 Pennsylvanians and for the rest of the country.

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