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As U.S. student loan debt reaches trillions, Millennials share burden with Baby Boomers

Student debt in the U.S. is at $1.4 trillion and owed by over 44 million Americans.

Lilia Luciano

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Jacob Sperling graduated college at Rutgers University, his father’s alma mater, paying twice as much in tuition. He quit his first job in his field, has spent most of his 20s living with either roommates or his parents, has worked graveyard shifts and spent his tax returns and a large part of his income in covering his student debt.

“I would say I have paid a fairly easy $8,000 to $10,000 in interest on a $40,000 loan,” he said.

Student debt in the U.S. is at $1.4 trillion and owed by more than 44 million Americans.

According to a recent Hunt.com study, California is the second most cost-burdened state for college graduates. More than 50 percent of college graduates living in Los Angeles, Marin County and San Francisco spend over half their income on rent and student loans.

“I'm still paying it seven years later even after paying sometimes four times the minimums and double my whole tax return,” Sperling said.

One of Jake’s loans, from Sallie Mae, had a variable interest rate between 3.8 and 10 percent. But he says they just locked it in at 9.9 percent the whole time.

We discussed the messaging that we both grew up with: Go to college, live the life you want, succeed. Or, don’t and be a failure.

“You go in and you get tossed to the wolves with the financial world at 17 or 18 without any much guidance,” Sperling said. He says the data is often skewed and murky when you try to get information from your lenders.

“Everyone hates for millennials to work for them because they think they're entitled and just care about money,” Sperling said, who is almost 30. “But that's part of the issue is this we're trying to pay back a lots and lots and lots of loans.”

He has since paid that loan off and has found work in Silicon Valley. Despite remaining indebted and having to make unexpected adjustments, he considers himself lucky, compared to stories he has heard about predatory lending.

It’s easy to cast this off as another millennial issue because we hear older Millennials lobbying and pushing for reform. However, there are plenty of Baby Boomers out there for whom this is still a very real problem.

“I owe over $312,000 in student loans and it has changed my life,” says Dr. Aimee Vickers, a 43-year-old psychologist who believes she will die with her debt. About six months after completing her postgraduate studies, her debt was sold off and divided among several collectors. She says, at one point, one of those bills was lost and they sent her account into default.

Due to the default and the penalties and interests that followed, she would not qualify for financial tools that would have helped her pay the loan.

Alexia Baca and Aimee met while working in prisons, both hoping to receive debt forgiveness. She only received one year of the 13 she says she worked in government. Every time she requested such benefits, she would come up against resistance or limitation. She says the $40,000 student loan she took out in the 90s has exploded to over $300,000, due to her inability to pay the high-interest rates and fees.

Randy Williams says he was a “dumb 20-something year-old kid” when he graduated and was told to consolidate his student loans. “It went from a four percent interest rate to 10 percent.” About ten years ago, he says he fell seriously ill and racked up $173,000 in medical bills.

At that point, he says he had no choice but to declare bankruptcy. “I bankrupted in 2008 because of these medical bills when I was in the hospital. we bankrupted on all of the medical stuff.” But he couldn’t declare bankruptcy on his student loans because student debt lacks this protection.

Alan Collinge, the founder of Student Loan Justice, says the lack of consumer protections result in predatory practices by creditors, scams, made-to-fail-loans, unrestricted tuition hikes where everybody stands to gain, except the students.

He calls student loans “the unicorn in the lending industry, in that there are no bankruptcy protections or statutes of limitation.”

He says this was not always the case. “Back in the 70s, Sallie Mae was a government-sponsored entity.” This, he said, gave it unchecked power, once the firm privatized. “So, Sallie Mae and others trotted out the stories about students running to bankruptcy court shortly after graduation,” despite the real numbers being dramatically lower than reported.

“Those stories were being touted to tell the far less than one percent, in fact, something like one tenth of one percent of student loans were actually being discharged in bankruptcy court at the time.”

He believes removing bankruptcy protections creates “very perverted fiscal incentives on the lending side and it causes widespread abuse... and just a cavalcade of other horrible outcomes for the borrowers.”

Jake says he finds it bizarre that the government would allow this kind of harm to student borrowers, especially when compared to consumer protections for other kinds of debt.

“If I were to take my private loans and go to Vegas and gamble it away and argue to a judge, I can probably get it thrown out, but if I actually use it for classes, I cannot. Because of that, a loophole that was closed by the federal government… even the private ones cannot be discharged in bankruptcy and I think that's ridiculous.”

When Randy Williams couldn’t declare bankruptcy and the penalty fees and interest in his loans continued accruing, he got creative. At 54 years old, to avoid defaulting on his loan, he stays in school, part time.

“I don't have a major declared, and what I do is I rotate between different counties.”

This keeps his loans under non-delinquent status. After the term ends, the clock starts counting again and he has 270 days to “get back in the classes or you going to default.”

He says paying for school at community colleges is still way cheaper than paying the loan. “It costs me less than $1000 a year. The student loan payment costs me $1500 a month.”

He says he doesn’t enjoy living like this and he would pay the principal in a lump sum if that was an option. But every time he tries to contact his creditor, they demand about $7,000 immediately.

To understand why Randy resorts to such extremes, you have to consider what defaulting would mean.

Consequences include garnishments of your wages, tax returns, and social checks. The borrower and their co-signers could be sued, and you could risk losing professional licenses, access to certain financial tools, and in some states even your driver's license.

President Obama kicked private lending out of the lending business, but firms like Navient and its parent company, Sallie Mae -- which have been sued over and over for what plaintiffs have called “unfair practices” -- are still in the collections and servicing business for federal loans as well as their own.

Meanwhile, the Federal government also profits tens of billions of dollars over the next decade from lending. Although, those projections are calculated using so many variables, and interpreted in so many different ways, using CBO data that it’s hard to know exactly how much.

The federal government has also offered income-based repayment plans, capping loans at 10 percent of income, and debt forgiveness programs for people who spend many years working in the public sector.

But even those programs can be quite imperfect, inaccessible and their future under the Trump administration, uncertain.

Under Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education has already frozen Obama-era debt forgiveness for students who were victims of fraud.

During a Facebook Live conversation earlier this week, we asked Lupita Cortés Alcalá, Executive Director of the California Student Aid Commission about other options available to students and parents. She said the good news is California students are on the lower end of the borrowing spectrum… the bad news is the cost of living in California cities.

“There are a lot of options. In California, it’s incredibly progressive we are very generous. We have $2 billion in grants, which is free money. And so, you need to have a 2.0 GPA and graduate from a California High School.”

She also recommended a middle-class scholarship, which pays tuition for families making between $100,000 and $165,000 a year. That’s at the state level, but she reminded viewers to apply for Pell Grant and other institutional aid provided directly by the schools.

For parents of younger children with time to save, she recommended Scholarshare, California’s 529 college savings plan.

For older students, she says one of the worst possible things you can do is take out a loan and not finish that degree.

Jessie Ryan from the Campaign for College Opportunity, said, “We’ve had pretty affordable fees at community colleges, they’re the lowest in the nation. The real cost for students there is it takes them longer to finish their certificate, the associate degree or transfer." She said "it is much more expensive because the cost of college is not just the fees, its transportation, housing, it’s how long it takes to get through"

Collinge recommended, “One thing that they can do and probably should do is to enact some sort of a claw-back mechanism, where the schools should be held responsible for at least a portion of the loan in the case where students to fall.” He believes, “This will light a fire under the colleges. To provide a high-quality education at a low cost and hopefully decrease the amount of time it takes to graduate.”

Randy Williams says he home schools his twin teenaged sons to save them from debt, as “homeschooled get more scholarships than their counterparts and tend to score higher on their SATs. We do this to give our kids an edge if there is a chance we can avoid student debt for them.”

I asked if he expects they will all be in college at the same time and if he sees himself as an 80-year-old man sitting in a classroom? He said, “Well you know that's only 30 years away.”