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The Nightmare of Navigating Student Loans

The Nightmare of Navigating Student Loans

What do you picture when you think of college? 

Maybe you see cavernous lecture halls. Football stadiums packed with fans. Beautifully manicured lawns where students study or play frisbee or make lifelong connections.

For many of today’s students, that image includes mountains of debt.

In 1980, attending a four-year college full-time cost $10,231 annually. That includes tuition, fees, room and board and is adjusted for inflation. By 2019, the price had skyrocketed 180% to reach $28,775. Private nonprofit institutions continue to be especially pricey — an average of $48,965 compared to $21,035 for a public university.

Grants and scholarships can help lower costs. And some students are lucky enough to have parents that pay some of the cost. But 30% to 40% of all undergraduates rely on loans to help them pay for school. And 70% of bachelor degree recipients have education debt by the time they graduate.

Going to college is almost a prerequisite to success these days. But the debt students rack up to achieve this success is both financially and emotionally devastating. I know because I have my own mountain of student debt.

For many student debt carriers, it takes decades to build up any savings. And forget about buying a home. Between the lack of savings and the difficulties paying off the debt, homes are out of reach for most of us. 

While the COVID-sparked pause on loan payments has helped millions to stay afloat, relief seems temporary for the roughly 45 million Americans with outstanding loans. And the government’s approach has done little to clarify borrowers’ fate. Some have pushed for the president to cancel $50,000 worth of debt for every borrower. This move would eliminate the debt of about 75% of all federal borrowers. But President Biden hasn’t agreed to it.

The Biden administration has canceled roughly $13 billion in student loans so far. Today, the president is considering loan forgiveness for those making less than $125,000 a year. If that becomes a reality, 95% of all student debtors would qualify.

As someone who’s currently struggling with my own student loans, I’m rooting for this solution. Because even though I have theoretically done everything right, navigating student loan payments has been an absolute nightmare.

When I first began paying off my loans, my loan servicer was Navient. You know, the loan servicer that was sued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and six states for steering borrowers away from income-driven repayment plans and toward forbearance (among other allegations). I used an income-driven repayment plan, which meant I could afford to pay only the interest — not the principal. So for about five years, I barely chipped away at my debt. It was only as I advanced in my career and grew my salary that I was able to pay more each month. 

Then my repayment plan expired, and I received no communication from Navient about it. I paid an increased rate for a couple years until 2020 hit. The pandemic started tearing through the U.S., and the government decided to temporarily pause loan payments for all borrowers in light of a difficult economic situation. 

I was lucky that my income wasn’t interrupted by the pandemic. So I decided to continue paying my loans, thinking I would take advantage of the 0% interest rates to really make a dent in my debt. That worked for about a year and a half, until I moved and my expenses increased. Then the Russia-Ukraine war started. And my cost of living skyrocketed.  

I could no longer afford to pay my loans every month. I was just barely staying afloat. But I was worried about stopping my payments entirely. I didn’t want to be penalized for missing payments. And it was unclear whether my loans would be forgiven by the government. Even though everyone I knew wasn’t paying their loans, I wanted to keep trying. 

By this point, my loan servicer had switched to Aidvantage. I tried to find a way to lower my payment. But navigating the Aidvantage website was maddening. My income-driven repayment plan had been expired for three years at that point, so I decided to renew the plan. But I was rejected for making too much money.

I decided to email Aidvantage customer service directly to try to talk to an actual human. I explained that my renewal was rejected, but that I still needed to lower my payment somehow. I got a response a few days later. I could not view the message in my email inbox, so I had to log in to my loan account, go to a separate inbox and then open the response as a PDF. (User experience: lacking.) The response simply directed me to do exactly what I just did, which was no help at all.

Then I tried to apply for economic deferment. But again I was rejected for making too much money. I emailed them again and explained the situation. Finally, my loans were placed in forbearance. 

There is no reason for this experience to be so frustrating. And I’m sure that my experience is not unique among the 45 million Americans who are still dealing with outstanding loans. 

This is where startups can step up. Navigating student loans – and all kinds of loans – is a stressful experience. Startups could make it a much smoother process. My personal wish list would include faster and more direct communication, easier access to humans who can talk through things and a better user experience overall.

Because investing in your education should not come at the expense of your sanity. 

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