SARA WAS DESPERATE. She was fleeing an abusive husband, living with her mother in a mold-infested house, and she needed to rent an apartment. A recent college graduate, Sara had a job at a hospital that paid well and provided benefits. Apartment rent was within her means. But the background check came back to the landlord: “Do not rent.”
Sara (not her real name) was $22,000 in arrears on her student loans. The more she tried to pay the debt, the higher the interest rate climbed. Only after she filed for bankruptcy did she learn that none of her student loans were eligible for even the basic bankruptcy protection afforded other debts. At any time, the lender could garnish her wages—even to the point of making it difficult to pay basic living expenses, such as rent and utilities.
Sara is one of the new 21st century debtors, in financial bondage because they borrowed money for education. In 2014, the education debt in the United States totaled $1.2 trillion. More than 7 million borrowers are in default.
Why are education loans so difficult to manage? Credit card debtors often can transfer high-interest debt to another lender for a better deal. Car loan borrowers can walk away from the loan and allow the car to be repossessed. Homeowners can refinance their mortgage or, if all else fails, default and save their money for a rent deposit while the lender goes through the foreclosure process. As a last resort, these types of borrowers can declare bankruptcy and have their debts forgiven or reduced in a manageable payment plan. Bankruptcy courts will not allow debtors to be made homeless just because they can’t pay their creditors.
But if the borrower of an education loan is late with a payment or goes into default, according to Andrew Martin of The New York Times, the lender can levy penalties up to 25 percent of the balance and legally increase the interest rate to several times the original rate.