April 23, 2012

HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE: To Pay Off Loans, Grads Put Off Marriage, Children.

Between the ages of 18 and 22, Jodi Romine took out $74,000 in student loans to help finance her business-management degree at Kent State University in Ohio. What seemed like a good investment will delay her career, her marriage and decision to have children.

Ms. Romine’s $900-a-month loan payments eat up 60% of the paycheck she earns as a bank teller in Beaufort, S.C., the best job she could get after graduating in 2008. Her fiancé Dean Hawkins, 31, spends 40% of his paycheck on student loans. They each work more than 60 hours a week. He teaches as well as coaches high-school baseball and football teams, studies in a full-time master’s degree program, and moonlights weekends as a server at a restaurant. Ms. Romine, now 26, also works a second job, as a waitress. She is making all her loan payments on time.

They can’t buy a house, visit their families in Ohio as often as they would like or spend money on dates. Plans to marry or have children are on hold, says Ms. Romine. “I’m just looking for some way to manage my finances.”

One of the main functions of higher education has been to facilitate marriage among the middle- to upper-middle class. If instead it results in debt that makes one unmarriageable, I suspect its appeal will decline significantly.

And note this:

Both private and government loans, however, lack “the most fundamental protections we take for granted with every other type of loan,” says Alan Collinge, founder of StudentLoanJustice.org, an advocacy group. When borrowers default, collection agencies can hound them for life, because unlike other kinds of debt, there is no statute of limitations on collections. And while other kinds of debt can be discharged in bankruptcy, student loans must still be paid barring “undue hardship,” a legal test that most courts have interpreted very narrowly.

Deferring payments to avoid default is costly, too. Danielle Jokela of Chicago earned a two-year degree and worked for a while to build savings before deciding to pursue a dream by enrolling at age 25 at a private, for-profit college in Chicago to study interior design. The college’s staff helped her fill out applications for $79,000 in government and private loans. “I had no clue” about likely future earnings or the size of future payments, which ballooned by her 2008 graduation to more than $100,000 after interest and fees.

She couldn’t find a job as an interior designer and twice had to ask lenders to defer payments for a few months. After interest plus forbearance fees that were added to the loans, she still owes $98,000, even after making payments for most of five years, says Ms. Jokela, 32, who is working as an independent contractor doing administrative tasks for a construction company.

By the time she pays off the loans 25 years from now, she will have paid $211,000.

Any other industry that did this sort of thing would be denounced as predatory, but government and higher education get a pass.

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