- Posted January 18, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
The written word: Your personal essays
The American Dream- Deferred
I grew up in a working class family. We lived in a small town, in a mobile home trailer. My sister and I shared a bed until I was 12 years old. My father is illiterate and my mother never graduated high school. Needless to say, none of my family had ever gone to college. Fewer than 5% of my peers from where I grew up graduated high school and went on to college. I was the exception. I studied hard and graduated high school, then I went to college. I studied hard there too and then got accepted at a very good law school. After 3 years of the hardest educational program imaginable aside from perhaps medical school, I graduated. I now have a J.D. And the people from my small hometown call my achievements miraculous, because they are. I am a statistical anomaly in that sense. But I represent a common statistic in another sense: as a graduate student from a non-wealthy family, I have accumulated what is now around $300,000 in student loans despite receiving numerous grants, scholarships and participating in work-study programs. I had no choice if I wanted to achieve my educational goals because it was impossible for me to save up the hundreds of thousands of dollars that college and law school costs, and my family was unable to provide financial help to me during my college education.
That “American dream” they tell us about is a fabrication that is not possible for working-class American kids. And the result of that fabrication is that today’s “middle class” and lower-caste students celebrate college graduation with a congratulatory message:
“You did it. You beat the odds. Now we are pleased to inform you that you will have to beat even greater odds and find a job in a depressed economy that can facilitate not only your rent and living expenses, but can also facilitate monthly loan payments of more than $3,000. Oh, and by the way, your student loan balances will be closer to one million dollars by the time you pay it off, if you ever can pay it off. Happy graduation, Graduate!”
Predatory lending by private and FFELP student loan lenders are suffocating the American dream.
The price of higher education has created a bottomless pit that students from middle and working class families will tumble down for most of the rest of their lives. The government has a safeguard to help Americans out when crisis occurs, such as when they suffer from medical condition that generates colossal medical bills, when their employment is terminated and they are unable to find a replacement job, or when a natural disaster destroys most of their possessions. That safeguard is bankruptcy, but currently no form of student loan is dischargeable without extreme undue hardship (a nearly impossible standard meaning that the student is disabled to the extent that she will definitively never be able to work again, such as if she is comatose and not expected to regain consciousness). This is particularly pertinent in regard to private student loans, which employ the same– if not worse– tactics as did the predatory mortgage lenders that caused the Great Recession. These private student loan lenders often violate federal and state laws in order to convince students in financial distress to borrow money, and then when that money comes due, they violate those laws even more egregiously. But due to the protections given to all types of “student loans”, little can be done to remedy these abuses.
Perhaps in 2005 when the economy was still somewhat strong, this was not such a major issue. But since the economy has fallen into disrepair the bankruptcy code needs to reflect that.
In 2006 when I entered law school, post-graduation employment rates for my school 6 months after graduation (when loan payments become due) were more than 98%. The year I graduated, that employment rate was embarrassing. Upon graduation, I knew of literally only a handful of students who had jobs to look forward to after taking the summer bar exam. I would be surprised if the employment rates 6-months-out reached 50%. What student can make a student loan payment of over $3,000 per month with no income?
Exacerbated interest accumulation and outrageous student loan payments harm the country as a whole when these students can’t pay their rent, and can’t pay for necessities for their children and other dependents.
Under changes made to the bankruptcy code in 2005, private student loans were given the same preferred treatment as government-based student loans. Currently, no student loans are dischargeable except under incredibly extreme circumstances.
Private student loans have been the fastest growing and most profitable sector of the student loan industry. Since 2001 the market for private student loans has grown at an annual rate of 27% to $17.3 billion in 2006 – roughly 20% of total student borrowing. Ten years ago, only 5% of total education loan volume was in private loans. The interest rates and fees on private loans are often more onerous than credit cards and adjustable-rate-mortgages. Private loans often carry interest rates of at least 15%. One of my loans has an interest rate of 18%, despite my co-signer grandmother’s perfect credit score. Unlike federal student loans, there is little government regulation over the terms and cost of these loans. When students need money to continue attending school, we have no choice but to take these outrageous loans or drop out of school and forfeit our goals.
Previously, only government issued student loans were protected during bankruptcy– meaning that only federal or state loans were not dischargeable. This protection had been in place since 1978 and was intended to safeguard federal investments in higher education. Under the 2005 changes, a provision was added that extended the same bankruptcy protections to private lenders.
Ideally, the bankruptcy law, as it pertains to private student loans, needs to be restored to the language that was in place prior to 2005, so that privately issued student loans will once again be dischargeable in bankruptcy, placing student loan companies in the same position as virtually all other creditors.
The goal of student loan reform is to relieve pressure on the middle and lower classes and increase our spending power, to deepen our national commitment to an educated public, and to expand the equality of opportunity. This is a key step in recovering our ill economy. The cost of education has outpaced earnings and potential employment.
My parents and grandparents also once believed the American Dream that a good education will save us all, so they co-signed for many of my student loans. As a result, their sole, small abodes may be completely encumbered by liens if I encounter some economic hardship and default on my student loans. The result? America could have 5 new homeless persons including two elderly couples. My grandfather is a war veteran who survived Pearl Harbor but may not be able to survive the student loan crisis.
Langston Hughes once wrote: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore– And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over–like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?”
Please don’t let us find out what happens to the American Dream Deferred.
Don’t let the private student loan lenders do to this country what the mortgage industry and banks did to it. Otherwise, the American Dream may dry up and crust over during my generation… and it may even explode.