Both my husband and I are first generation, Latino students. I have received my PhD and have been working as a tenure track and tenured professor at a Hispanic serving, first generation focused public university for 15 years. My husband did not finish his PhD because he has had to work multiple adjunct and freelance writing jobs to help us financially. Our institution qualifies for PSLF. We have attempted to convert our loans into Direct Loans so that we could take advantage of the PSLF but were informed that our FFEL Spousal loans do not count for PSLF, nor can they be consolidated into Direct loans. We are in a vacuum. We are trying to meet our obligations, but these loans just keep growing, we now owe two times more than originally held. And there’s no end in sight to this burden. Here’s our story . . .
In January 2006, just months before the legislature discontinued the FFELP program, we were advised by the Department of Education to consolidate our loans into FFEL Spousal Consolidation loans. We had just had a baby, and my husband was not working so that he could help with childcare. I was a graduate student finishing qualifying exams and then my dissertation, in my PhD program. As a teaching assistant, I made $12,500 a year, and without my husband’s income as an adjunct, we would have not have been able to pay anything on his $180,000 loan balance. Instead of offering hardship forbearance or limited payment options due to his unemployment or any other options to my husband, the Dept. of Education representative recommended we consolidate our loans so they would be deferred because I was still in school. That was the solution we were given, no others.
In 2008, I began working a full-time tenure track position at a public university in Texas. My husband remained unemployed. After six months, we were expected to pay over $2000 a month on our joint loan. We applied for IBR and that amount went down to just over $500 a month. But with my husband unemployed, and my beginning salary at $57,000 and the need for childcare for our 3-year-old child, we had to borrow money from our parents or other family members to purchase groceries. That went on for years.
Once I received tenure in 2014, I received a $7000 raise. By then, my husband was working as an adjunct earning about $24,000 a year. Both of these “wins” just meant we had to pay even more on our loans. We decided to move into university housing where I worked an additional job as Faculty in Residence to help save money, but no money was saved. We just got to stop asking people for money. After a year of that, we moved in with my in-laws. And finally in 2017, we purchased our first home with a grant for new homeowners helping us with the 3% down payment. We had zero money saved.
One month after we settled into our new home, Hurricane Harvey hit. Our home sustained damage, and due to the liquidation of our finances to purchase the home, we had to file for bankruptcy due to the money spent to repair our home. During bankruptcy our loans were in deferment, but kept accruing interest. Once out of bankruptcy our loans went from $200,000 to $425,000. And once out of bankruptcy, we were advised to consolidate into direct loans to qualify for PSLF. We spent $225 working with a department of education recommended advocate, and ultimately, we were told what they should have known: these loans cannot be converted. And they qualify for no forgiveness of any kind. We are stuck.
We have attempted to deal with these loans multiple times. We have dealt with debt and student loan advocates, but they don’t know the ins-and-outs of these types of loans. We have been in contact with the Dept. of Ed, as well as our elected representatives. They try to help, but eventually discover the FFELP problem and tell us there’s nothing they can do. Even our servicer, Nelnet, has been of little help, telling us one thing and then not updating us or charging us late fees when we follow their directions and they have not updated our files. These loans are an albatross to us reaching financial solvency.
Each time I receive a merit raise (which only average $2500 every other year), the amount I have to pay on these loans goes up. My husband only makes about $30,000 a year, and most of the loans were his. If we could split these loans, we could easily pay the cost and then have them forgiven once we pay the 120 payments for PSLF. These loans prevent us from saving, paying for our son’s impending college (he’s 16.5 years old). We live paycheck to paycheck. This is untenable. And if we had just had better advice and support from the Dept of Education, we would not be stuck in this place with no recourse.