Tuesday, July 2, 2013

On student loan debt

If you read this blog, you probably know that I've been posting my journal from my year abroad in Europe in 1997-1998. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and I cherish it.

But I still  haven't paid for it.

I have the equivalent of a year's worth of student loan debt (in 1997 terms). I stopped trying to pay it. Here's the story.

After I graduated from Miami University in 1999, I participated in a graduate-level program on the political economy of the European Union. It was a six-week course held in several European capital cities. We learned from economists, ambassadors, journalists, political scientists, members of parliament, and business professionals. This was the course where I learned about the importance of building institutions for democracy to thrive, a lesson I would later apply to my career in international democracy and governance, with a particular focus on the Middle East North Africa region.

My intention was always to pursue a post-graduate degree. I had in mind that I would work for a PhD in political science in a discipline related to international affairs. (I didn't know what democratic governance was then, but I now know that's what I wanted to do.) The European seminar was just the beginning of that; however, I graduated with a year's worth of college debt. I had done well enough in school that I received nearly three years worth of scholarships and grants, but that still left me with about $15,000 of debt upon graduation. I was 22 years old. That was a frightening number to me back then, and I was afraid to take on more debt for my post-graduate studies. I also knew that to get a job in Washington, which is where I had always wanted to go, I had to take an internship before I would be hired as a full-time employee anywhere. Being interested in international affairs, I took a three-month internship at a peace and reconciliation center in Ireland.

But I felt pressure from my parents to get a job. I needed a way to fund my education and I had to do something that would enhance my chances of getting into a good school. I was leaning towards university of Chicago, which, in hindsight, wouldn't have quite fit my wish to pursue something in international affairs. Chicago is one of the best schools for political science, but it is better for American politics. I should have been focusing on SAIS or Fletcher School. Anyway, one day I was sitting on the couch our living room trying to figure out where to go and what to do, when the telephone rang. The man on the other line asked for my sister, who was not at home at the time and I told him this. Instead of hanging up, he began to talk to me. He was a recruiter for the United States Army.

He asked me questions about myself, about school, about my future, and I admitted to him that I wanted to go to graduate school but I didn't know how to get there. That's when he told me about the GI Bill. Not only could I get money for my education, but I could also learn a foreign language for the Army - I was particularly interested in Russian - and be stationed in Germany. How could I pass that up? It was everything I was looking for.

I enlisted. I learned neither Russian nor was stationed in Germany. I didn't even finish out my initial contract. I tested too high on the language aptitude test for Russian and was instead assigned to Arabic. I finished the Arabic course but it turned out the Army wasn't for me and I was honorably discharged after nearly three years of service. But I didn't get my GI Bill money.

I did have a highly valued skill, though, and I packed up my car and moved to Washington DC. It took me eight months to find a job after I turned down an offer from the NSA out of principle. (I could not in good conscience work for the Bush administration.) I took a minimum wage job while I tried to look for full-time work, which inhibited both my job search (people, searching for a job is a full-time job, with all the research and letter-writing and resume tweaking you need to do) and my ability to pay the bills. Washington is an expensive city. You're not going to find a place to live for less than $1000 except in unsafe parts of town or in terrible living arrangements. I couldn't pay my student loans.

I had several hardship forbearance arrangements, during which interest still accrued. When I finally found a full-time job, I was only paid $28,000 a year before taxes. After rent, food, transportation, and other necessary expenses, I didn't have anything left. I used to go around to DC conferences and panel discussions that had free lunches so I could eat. The day before paydays I would often write checks - back then checks weren't instant transactions so you could write them a day before you had any money without fear they would be cashed.

I was promoted after eight months in that organization and with that came a pay increase. Over four years I had several pay increases. It was enough where I could afford to start making payments on the loans, but the payments weren't enough to cover the interest, and each month the total owed was more than it had been the previous month. So I gave up. Why am I going to give away $50 that I need if I'm not going to make a dent in the total?

I had an opportunity to go abroad for awhile, so I left that job. I had grown frustrated with not getting promoted despite the fact I had developed programs and worked with grantees and at times seemed to be the only reason the department functioned. The final straw really was when a program I had developed that was to be held in Tunis with the promise that I would get to run it was given to a new hire. I suspect it had everything to do with her having a Master's degree, as if my four years in the organization wasn't enough to learn the field. Three bosses in four years and a lot of department reshuffling left me as a glorified copyeditor. I fell into depression and it became difficult to focus on my work. So I left the job and the country for a few months.

I should have foreseen the economic downturn, because it took me a year to find a another job after I returned. It was a great opportunity and I got to live in Beirut in the process. I made a decent salary and once again attempted to start on my loans, but I still couldn't pay enough a month to make a dent in them. After two years, the organization folded, and I was left without a job. I did some consulting in Beirut for awhile but couldn't make enough to live on, so I returned to the US and remained jobless for four months. In this time, I couldn't afford the loans. They fell into default.

At this point I don't see myself every being able to pay them back. I was hired at the highest salary I had ever had two years ago but worked with a crazy lady (really) and left in a mutual agreement after seven months. (I was the fourth person in that position in five years to leave because of her.) It only took three months to find my current job, but I took a $9000 pay cut, and I'm living paycheck to paycheck again. At this point I owe $5000 more than the original loan total. My credit is shot, I'll never see another income tax refund, and the total will just continue to rise. I never went to graduate school and probably never will because I won't be able to get a loan, and because I can't get a graduate degree, I will never be paid as much as my colleagues with them.

The worst part is that my story is a dime a dozen. Actually, it's worse now, because college is more expensive than ever, and the economy isn't producing jobs with decent wages. All it takes is one misfortune or miscalculation to fall behind forever.

And Congress just let student loan interest rates double.

This is how out of touch with us common folk those rich bastards are. At a time when it's difficult for new graduates - or anybody, really - to find jobs with liveable wages, interest rates should be ZERO. In times of unemployment and economic hardship, interest rates should be ZERO. Instead, at a time when people are viewing student loan debt as a crisis, they DOUBLED interest rates.

The approval rating for Congress is TEN PERCENT (who are these morons who approve?), but they continue to ignore the will and best interests of the people. Despite the spreadsheet error in the Reinhart-Rogoff paper, Republicans in Congress continue to cling to their austerity ideology. They're such assholes that they don't give a shit if holding out in the name of their ideology hurts the country.

I am a productive member of society. I pay my taxes without complaint. I participate in the electoral process. I've worked in a field that isn't glorified with high salaries. I have a great resume with excellent references. I have seen a lot of the world. I wouldn't be where I am today without my education, especially my year in Luxembourg. But I feel like I'm being punished because I wasn't a member of the privileged class.

Isn't it time we fight back?

Maybe everyone should just stop paying their loans in protest.

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