Tower of Debt (Guest Post: Camille Landry)

camille_landryCamille Landry is a writer, activist, and social justice advocate who lives in Oklahoma City.  This post is part of our “Neglected Oklahoma” series, which tells the stories of Oklahomans in situations where the basic necessities of life are hard to come by.  These are real people and their stories are true (names have been changed to protect privacy).

“I don’t know where it all went wrong,” Shelley says. “I went to college, earned my degree.  So where are all the good jobs?”

Shelley McMurray graduated two years ago from a state university with a degree in psychology. She planned to attend graduate school to become a child & family therapist. Instead Shelley works part-time for a social service agency at $18/hour, plus another 15-20 hours per week at a local mall for $11.50/hour.

Fifty-three percent of recent college grads are jobless or underemployed, the highest share in the last 11 years. More than a third of young college graduates have taken jobs that do not require a college degree.

Shelley struggles to pay her bills. After housing and food, her biggest obligation is her student loan payment. “I owe $285/month for ten years. It’s killing me,” Shelley says. “I can’t pay my bills, much less save any money. I just can’t get ahead. The loan payment each month really bites.” Shelley’s student loans are typical. The average student loan debt for the class of 2012 is $29,400, and debt at graduation has been rising 6 percent annually. Over 37 million US students owe a cumulative total of $1 trillion.

Shelley always knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. Cowgirls and astronauts were for other kids. “I wanted to work with people who have problems, to help families get healthier so kids can grow up strong and secure.”

Shelley won a scholarship her freshman year that covered tuition to a private school. She took out student loans to cover her other costs. The scholarship was discontinued after the first year due to a funding shortage. She took out an unsubsidized loan from a bank that offers student loans. 

Shelley realized that she couldn’t afford to keep borrowing money. She left school at the end of her second year and got a job. She married and had a little girl, but her marriage didn’t last.

Shelley needed additional education to realize her dreams. She enrolled at a public college to finish her degree. Her salary made her ineligible for a Pell Grant, so she took out student loans and lived off her savings while working part time. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology three years later.

Shelley had planned to start graduate school immediately but soon realized that she could not afford it. “I had to take out so many loans just to finish school, I needed to work for a while to save money and avoid having to borrow as much for grad school.”

Shelley’s student loans came due as soon as she graduated.  “I thought I’d have a little while to get on my feet before I had to start paying,” she said, “but the first installment was due just a few weeks after graduation.” She took the only jobs she could find.

srudent loan calculatorShelley has a Facebook friend from Australia. “I didn’t know whether to scream or cry when she told me that she got through college with almost no student debt.  She took out a no-interest loan to attend a private college. With the public grant given to all college students, she graduated owing only a few thousand dollars. Australians invest in their own people a lot more than we do … In America, colleges steer students toward banks for school loans.” 

 “More than a third of my student loan debt is interest that I have to pay to a privately owned bank. The government acts as a collection agency for these banks. My loan payment literally takes food out of my daughter’s mouth and clothes off her back.”

I asked whether she could renegotiate or restructure her debt and lower her payments. “I’ve tried but they won’t budge. It’s ‘Pay up now or we garnish your paycheck, take your tax return and wreck your credit.’  I’m stuck with it. So I pay.”

Over a quarter of all student loan borrowers are at least one monthly payment behind, and 65 percent of borrowers surveyed by the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Agency complained that their lender was unresponsive to requests to renegotiate loans, according to data gathered by the Guardian. Millions of federal student loan borrowers have defaulted on their loans. 

“Everybody tells you that education is the ticket out of poverty. My folks were so proud of me when I graduated. I thought I had earned my freedom, secured my future, but the degree I earned means that I’m shackled to this debt. I’m actually worse off than when I didn’t have a degree.”

The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

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