'I'm Drowning': Those Hit Hardest By Student Loan Debt Never Finished College

Jul 18, 2019
Originally published on October 24, 2019 2:43 pm

Most days, 25-year-old Chavonne can push her student loan debt to the back of her mind.

Between short-term office jobs in the Washington, D.C., area, she drives for Uber. But once in awhile, a debt collector will get hold of her cellphone number — the one she keeps changing to avoid them — and it all comes back fresh. "I'll be like, 'Oh no!' " she says. "It's a sad reminder that I owe somebody money!"

In April, she got another reminder when the government seized her tax refund.

All this for a degree she never finished.

Back in high school, she recalls, her teachers and friends pushed her to go to college. And so, without too much thought, Chavonne enrolled at the University of Mississippi and borrowed about $20,000 to pay for it.

Far away from home and in a challenging environment, she struggled — and after three semesters, she'd had enough. Her college days are five years behind her, but the debt she took on is not.

Today, rent, car payments, gas and food are higher up on her list of priorities. And so she's in default, not paying on her loans.

We're not using Chavonne's last name — or those of any of the borrowers we talked to — so they can talk candidly about their personal finances.

The one thing that could help Chavonne earn more money, of course, is earning a degree. But because she's in default, she doesn't have access to federal student aid that could help her go back and finish. It's a vicious cycle for Chavonne and millions of other students who leave college with debt and without a degree.

From mid-2014 to mid-2016, 3.9 million undergraduates with federal student loan debt dropped out, according to an analysis of federal data by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news organization.

The default rate among borrowers who didn't complete their degree is three times as high as the rate for borrowers who did earn a diploma. When these students stop taking classes, they don't get the wage bump that graduates get that could help them pay back their loans.

The perception is, work hard and pay what you owe, says Tiffany Jones, who leads higher education policy at the Education Trust, "but it's not manageable even if you're working."

"If I made sure that my credit score was my No. 1 priority and that I got these student loans taken care of," Chavonne says, "I would not have a roof over my head."

"Nobody should be in this position."

During her third year of college, Ashlee, who is now 27, asked herself a tough question: "Do I need money more, or do I need school more?"

The answer? She needed the money. She'd been working full time to help pay the bills for her family, but balancing school and full-time work became impossible.

Ashlee took out about $12,000 in loans to go to college right after she graduated from high school in 2010. "I'm drowning in debt for a piece of paper I never received," she says. "Nobody should be in this position."

Now she's in default and owes more than she did when she took her loans out. Ashlee lives with her mother in Louisville, Ky., and says she wants to move soon. But her debt has ruined her credit, which makes it hard to find a new place to live.

That's a sentiment others share.

"I can't have a real mortgage," says Heather, who lives in New York state north of Syracuse. Like Ashlee, she's in default: "I get unbelievable interest rates for vehicle loans."

In the early 2000s, Heather, 44, and her husband enrolled at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, a private for-profit college that shut its doors earlier this year. Neither of them finished with a degree.

Heather now works at a paper packaging factory back in New York.

Students at for-profit colleges are in a particularly tough spot. More than half of students who drop out of a for-profit college default on their loans within 12 years, according to one analysis from The Institute for College Access and Success.

Shawn, 27, also went to a for-profit institution. It didn't take him long to realize that his classes at ITT Tech weren't going well.

He started there as a graphic design student, but when the school changed locations in the Philadelphia area, it stopped offering the design classes he wanted. Shawn switched to a new focus, but the long commute and the disappointing classes were too much.

When a medical issue came up, Shawn stopped going to class.

Now, he says, "I feel like I'm stuck in quicksand." He works in sales at an industrial supply company outside Philadelphia, and he's in default on the loans he took out to pay for school. Shawn still has about half of his original $12,000 or so to repay.

"I can't finance a car and can't get a credit card," he says. "If I can't get a secured credit card, I'm definitely not going to get a mortgage."

Research shows that students struggling the most to repay their loans have, on average, less than $10,000 in debt.

"It may not sound like a lot, but for a 22-year-old supporting himself, it is a lot," says Dali, who lives outside Los Angeles and does freelance carpentry.

"I haven't applied for a credit card," he says. "I already know I'm going to be declined."

He took out about $10,000 in loans to go to California State University, Fullerton right after high school. So far, he's paid back only about $300 and is in forbearance, which means his payments are on hold. "I just can't afford it right now," he says.

Back in college, he didn't have a lot of financial support. "That financial instability eventually caught up with me," he says. He started working full time and stopped going to school.

Now he wants to go back, like many others. But, he adds, "I'm afraid of being more in debt."

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Most students take out loans to go to college. Some will graduate with them, and some of those students who took out loans won't graduate. Experts say these students struggle far more than graduates with six-figure debt. NPR's Elissa Nadworny spent time with students who have debt but no degree.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: I met up with Chavonne in the car she drives for Uber.

CHAVONNE: How are you doing today?

NADWORNY: Oh, my gosh, I'm good.

It's one of the many jobs she's had this year. But I'm here to talk with her about her student loans.

CHAVONNE: So really I did not want to attend college.

NADWORNY: But in her Washington, D.C., high school, everyone told her she had to go. So without thinking about it too much, she took out about $20,000 in loans and set off to the University of Mississippi.

CHAVONNE: I went down there with 14 tattoos across my legs, my arms and my body and bright pink hair. I think I stood out like a sore thumb.

NADWORNY: She was working in fast food, taking a full class load. And her grades started to slip.

CHAVONNE: I just couldn't focus. I stopped going to class. I kind of was just, like, screw it at this point. I just wanted to make it through the semester because I had already made my mind up that I was leaving.

NADWORNY: By the end of her third semester...

CHAVONNE: Called my mom, and I told her, I just wanted to come home.

NADWORNY: That was five years ago. Today she works short-term office jobs. And in between, she drives Uber. She likes working, but money is tight, and rent is expensive plus her car and gas. And that loan she took out for the degree she never got - she now owes more than when she started.

CHAVONNE: But it's not just that I have it. It's that I can't pay on it.

NADWORNY: We're not using Chavonne's last name or those of any of the borrowers we talked to so they can talk candidly about their personal finances without a negative impact on future employment. Lots of the borrowers I talked to are caught up in a vicious cycle, and that can be hard to get out of. They often need multiple jobs to pay their bills. To get a job that pays more, they'd need a degree.

TIFFANY JONES: So this means that the student is also stuck.

NADWORNY: Tiffany leads higher ed policy for the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group. Research confirms the obvious. If you get a bachelor's degree, you have higher wages, and you can pay back your loans. It's the students who never get that degree but still carry the debt that bear the brunt of this crisis.

JONES: Some of the gut reaction from folks is, folks need to work hard, and they need to pay what they owe. But it's not manageable even if you're working.

NADWORNY: And Chavonne's $20,000 debt - it's actually on the higher side. Often the people who struggle to pay have less than $10,000 in debt.

DALI: When I think about $10,000 right now, it may not sound like a lot. But to a 22-year-old supporting, you know, himself, it is a lot.

NADWORNY: Dali works as a freelance carpenter in Southern California. He's only paid about $300 back on that loan, and not having the money to pay more - it's a constant stress.

DALI: You know, I worry, am I going to get enough hours this week to be able to pay my rent and to eventually be able to start paying some of this debt back?

NADWORNY: Dali's debt comes from his two years at Cal State Fullerton. He was working towards an engineering major, and he didn't have a ton of financial support, so he was working full time while going to school. He wasn't doing great in class, and eventually the paycheck made more sense than the bad grades. So he stopped going.

DALI: You know, I liked not having to struggle as much.

NADWORNY: But that decision has had consequences for Dali. His freelance hours are unpredictable. His low credit score makes it hard to get a credit card or lease a new truck. Still, it could be worse.

HEATHER: The biggest thing impacting me is a garnishment that comes out of my check every week. They also take my federal tax returns every year.

NADWORNY: Heather lives in upstate New York, and she's been struggling with her student loans for more than a decade.

HEATHER: I never graduated. I don't have a degree.

NADWORNY: She and her husband attended a for-profit art school in Pittsburgh, Pa. And when she took out loans - about $27,000 - the recruiter told her her payments would be about $200 a month.

HEATHER: I thought, no problem; we can handle that. Our payments ended up being over $800 each per month. We couldn't handle that.

NADWORNY: Despite getting a good job, Heather couldn't pay. Her loans went into default, and the collection agencies took over. Eventually they sued her. When she adds up interest, collection charges and fees, she now owes more than double what she originally took out.

HEATHER: I came from a family that didn't really have money, so we never really talked about it.

NADWORNY: Now in her 40s, she makes sure to talk about money with her two kids. Chavonne, who went to school in Mississippi - she wishes she had had more frank conversations about money before she went to college.

CHAVONNE: I didn't understand what I was doing. You know, we were just signing papers and just - oh, you need this. OK, let me get that, and let me take that. And then it's like, before you know, like, boom, you bought a house basically, like. You're in enough debt to own a house at this point.

NADWORNY: Chavonne's story and Dali's and Heather's - they raise a lot of questions. Who is responsible for their debt, and how can we help students understand what borrowing thousands of dollars really means? And if the degree can make such a big difference, how can colleges ensure that students actually graduate?

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.