Published on Wednesday, August 1, 2012 by The Guardian
I got into a good university and received a great education, but – like thousands of Americans – I am paying a high price
I may not look like it, but I am a modern-day serf. Saddled with thousands of dollars of student debt – debt that has been stripped of all consumer protections and is non-dischargeable in bankruptcy – I am part of a screwed generation.Earlier this year, the collective student loan burden in the United States passed the $1tn mark. Analysts are increasingly referring to a student loan bubble that could result in a crisis similar to the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008.
A bad job market for recent graduates and skyrocketing education costs have greatly exacerbated the problem. We are seeing a phenomenon in which the old are essentially eating the young, with the baby boomers having a disproportionate amount of financial privilege. And among the nation's elite, there is a terrible sense of denial about just how bad the younger generations have it – old white guys in Congress believe we're merely lazy and entitled, having not had the good grace to be born into families with trust funds. It's a class war, and the middle class is losing.
My own student debt saga began in 2002, when my family's finances went south after I had successfully applied to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. I was reluctant to take out loans that would cover half the cost of my pricey education, but every adult advising me on the matter was adamant that going to Duke was not an opportunity to pass up. I also realised that my financial aid package in a cheaper state school would not be that much better. So I rolled the dice. I received a great education and have, so far, had good luck in the job market.
Yet following graduation every major decision I made was shaped by my terror of defaulting on the loans. I knew the consequences would be devastating: interest and late fees would pile up, driving me deeper into debt as my credit rating was ruined, resulting in not being able to own a home or even rent an apartment. I was skimming on healthcare, stressing out, and taking on more and more extra work. In 2007, I went abroad – though I continued to pay my loans.
The trouble with serfdom is that serfs don't last very long. Eventually, my body started to turn on me – an old back injury and cheap dental work gone wrong began to haunt me. I required massive amounts of physical therapy. I got better, but my savings were wiped. When I unexpectedly got pregnant soon after, I wondered if I "deserved" to have a child – after all, parenthood was for the wealthy, not for losers like me.
"Since when do you need permission from a loan company to start a family?" my Russian husband, whom I met after moving to Moscow, asked me. "You don't understand – they own me for life," I sobbed pathetically, overwhelmed by pregnancy hormones and the terror of insolvency. He told me to get it together. When it was time to give birth to our son, we relied on Russia's state healthcare system – a good choice, as it turned out. I had money for a private clinic squirrelled away, but gave all of it to Sallie Mae Inc, which owns my private debt. As comic writer David Sedaris put it: "Sallie Mae sounds like a naive and barefoot hillbilly girl but in fact they are a ruthless and aggressive conglomeration of bullies." I picture Sallie Mae as a beast I had to keep feeding – lest it fed on me.
This year, I still face default on my private loans. The late fees have piled up. My debt is in the stratosphere. I'm tired of fighting. The system seems rigged, anyway. Charlie Kent, a fellow debtor and student loan activist, recently said: "Goodbye hope, hello fast slide into poverty." I advised him to take a job abroad. I predict that more and more educated people will find themselves unable to cope with the reality of life in the US right now.
Our lawmakers think the country can afford to lose us – in more ways than one. Student loan suicides are not unheard of, though it's hard to obtain statistical data on the subject. I know that ever since I "came out" about my student debt problems, I've read dozens of emails and comments from people who are thinking about killing themselves, alongside hate mail from fellow Americans who cheerfully advise me to take my own life. And just this week, I received a chilling message about the apparent suicide of an old acquaintance.
Robert's story seems similar to mine. After suffering from health problems, being unable to keep up with payments and running out of forbearances, he saw his student loans balloon. Depressed and desperate, he took his own life. He had been the first in his family to go to college. Poor Robert. He thought higher education would be his way out of poverty.© 2012 The Guardian