The Crushing Burden of Student Loan Debt

By Alexia Baca Morgan

Americans have $1.5 trillion in student loan debt. This is is $620 billion more than total U.S. credit card debt. It is second only to mortgage debt in this country. The average student graduating in 2016 owed $37,172 upon leaving school. This number is subject to interest.

Student debt significantly outpaces wage growth. Median wages have increased only 1.69%, whereas student loan debt has risen 163.8%, in the past 25 years. More than 44 million Americans have student loan debt. Student loan borrowers who are ages 20 to 30 pay $351 a month, on average.

About 40% of the student loan debtors have attained graduate degrees. These Americans carry high debt. American law student loans average $140,616 in debt, whereas medical and health science professionals average $161,173 in debt.

Research concludes that home purchases, medical bills and marriage, as well as having children, are being delayed due to crushing student loan debt. One in four borrowers is now either in default or struggling to stay current on the loan. There have been reports of suicides by student loan borrowers due to the stress of the loans.

When Barack Obama was President, he acknowledged the problems of private companies such as General Motors being in the student loan business. He brought it back to the federal government. Some solutions that have been tried include income-based and repayment plans, loan forgiveness and public student loan forgiveness programs. The student loan programs have had 49,659 applicants, however, 32,409 applicants have been denied; only 206 people have received loan forgiveness.  

Betty DeVos, the current Education Secretary, has moved to deny people who thought that they were going to have their loans forgiven after working in various programs for 10 straight years.

Terry Martin, a clinical psychologist, stated, “I was in a program that offered student loan forgiveness, except there were always excuses for why I did not get student loan repayment for the year I was working. One year they said that they had made a mistake and I needed to sign paperwork stating I would not sue the federal government for not getting my student loan repayment. Of the five years I worked at the low-income clinic, only one year was covered under the student loan forgiveness program, when all five should have been covered.”

Another clinical psychologist, Dr. Lucy Nerio, says, “I feel like I drank the Kool-Aid. As a female minority, I thought that getting my advanced degree would be financially positive for me and my family.”

Martin is has more than $300,000 in debt, despite many years served but not honored in a low-income clinic that was eligible for loan repayment.

As Californians, Martin and Nerio are not alone. California is the state with the most student loan debt: $111.7 billion of debt owed by 3.4 million borrowers.

Student loan debt has grown over the years as interest accrues and public service loan forgiveness programs fail. President Obama took the student loan business out of the hands of non government agencies. Sallie Mae was a government agency tasked with servicing federal student loans. It broke into two parts, with Sallie Mae handling private loans and Navient servicing federal loans for the government. In spite of this, the federal government under Navient had major problems. Students have filed lawsuits against Navient for such issues as denying them income-based repayment or defaulting them without cause.

Alan Collinge, founder of Student Loan Justice, recalls the unchecked power given to Sallie Mae after it was privatized. Bankruptcy protections were unfairly removed from student loan borrowers.

Recently, Collinge convinced U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D–Ill.) and 17 co-sponsors to sponsor a bill that brings bankruptcy protection back to student loans. “Keep the lending system honest and fair with bankruptcy protection,” he said.

Senators Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) are of the co-sponsors; there are no Republicans backing the bill.

The statistics indicate that crushing student loan debt is shaping up to be a financial crisis in this country. It rivals the housing meltdown of 2008.

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Alexia Baca Morgan is a mother of two adults, a clinical psychologist in private practice, and is active in issues including homelessness, student loan debt, mental health treatment, and repeal of the death penalty.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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