(WGN) — As the nation’s student loan balance hovers around $1.7 trillion, the hardship seems never-ending.
One in 4 Americans carries college loan debt. While many of them work to pay off the loans, most are still financially underwater years, even decades later. Laura Allen, of Chicago, is one of many who still has lingering college bills as she inches closer to retirement.
A 1992 college graduate, the married mother of three received her degree from National Louis University. But that achievement came with a $12,000 loan that has ballooned to over $30,000.
Allen is now almost 60 years old.
“I actually added up my payments one day, and I almost wanted to cry because I’ve paid back over $12,000 on my student loans,” Allen said.
Deferments and forbearance played out, but she says she always paid the minimum. Yet, she still couldn’t get out from under her student loan debt. Allen says she feels angry, hopeless and frustrated.
“I can’t possibly be the only one in this situation, and I know that even a loan shark would negotiate,” she said.
Personal finance expert Terry Savage says the sad reality is that student lenders won’t negotiate.
“Student loans are the roach motel of finance,” she said. “You get in and you’re trapped.”
Her idea to exterminate the problem is a simple one.
“Lower the rate to about what the government pays, 1%, and then have people pay off only the principal,” she said. “A lot of people like Laura have already paid off the principal. That’s the fair way. Takedown the excess loan shark interest. Let people pay back the original borrowings.”
In 2020, then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden promised, if elected, to help financially strapped students by forgiving $10,000 in loans. Now, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren want to see student loan burdens lightened by $50,000.
While Biden is feeling the pressure, Savage thinks Congress needs to formulate a better solution, while considering those who have made their loan payments over the years.
“So unfair to people that have already paid off their loans, made a big dent in them, or the parents who have saved and scrimped,” Savage said.
For cases like Allen, a few years from retirement, Savage says the government has other plans for one’s social security.
“If you don’t repay your student loans by the time it’s time to collect your social security, they will, yes, garnish your social security benefits,” she said. “In fact, it’s already happened to more than 115,000 retirees.”
That’s Allen’s worst fear.
“We cannot destroy people’s entire lives in retirement after they’ve paid back the principal on their loan,” Savage said. “It’s time to adjust.”
The philosophy applies to aging students, as well as parents and grandparents who have helped their kids and grandkids with student loans. Before the pandemic, in the second quarter of 2019, just over half, 56%, of outstanding federal student loan debt was actively being repaid. Everybody else was in default or some kind of hold or forbearance.
A further breakdown concludes women hold two-thirds of all student loan debt in the U.S. Additionally, 20 years after starting college, the median Black borrower owes 95% of their student debt compared to only 6% for the median white borrower.
Despite the financial crisis, Allen is counting on Congress to throw her a life preserver.
“My hope is that I can get something done with Congress because I just can’t pay back $30,000,” she said. “I just can’t.”