I Was Held Hostage By $235,000 In Student Debt. Then A Letter Changed Everything.
On an unremarkable afternoon, slick and sweaty from yoga class, I found a slim envelope in my mailbox among the normal credit card bills, debt consolidation offers and insurance claims: a letter from my student loan provider.
I eyed it, feeling foul. I owed them $235,000, and I was sure they wanted it back. Financial independence, the cornerstone of pragmatic feminism, was so far out of my reach that it felt laughable.
Over the years, money has shaped so many of my choices. I was enticed into a bad marriage by the prospect of financial security, then fearful to leave it due to lack. I’ve had a rewarding career doing justice work for other women at a domestic violence agency, but it didn’t help me build wealth ― it allowed only a few hundred dollars of buffer between paychecks. I’ve been ambivalent about starting a family, informed by the reality of my negative net worth. My entire adult life has, in many ways, been forged by this debt.
Student debt first entered into my life in 2007, when I began my studies at Brooklyn Law School. I was debt-free at the time, having the good fortune of attending a public undergraduate university with reasonable tuition paid in full by my parents. Private law school was a different animal: My $48,000 yearly tuition and living expenses were mostly on me.
Given the existence of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (PSLF), it seemed a safe bet. It was a fairly new program, established in 2007 under President George W. Bush as part of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which enjoyed bipartisan support. Work for 10 years in public service, make a corresponding 120 monthly payments based on your income and all your debt would be discharged. Law school admissions offices were quick to laud it during recruitment.
For me, PSLF was an easy sell: Public service was the point of my legal education. At 23, I took out my first federally backed student loans, borrowing a staggering amount before my frontal lobe had fully developed.
FFELP Stafford, Direct Plus, Graduate Plus, Perkins ― I needed them all, even with parents subsidizing a rent-stabilized apartment. By the time I graduated in 2010, I’d accumulated $160,000 in debt.
Twelve years later, that amount had swollen to $235,000 due to interest.
When I graduated from law school, the economy was still bruised by the 2008 recession and the job market was brutal. By that point I’d staked all of my hopes on a singular career path: assistant district attorney.
Lucky for me, the Bronx came calling. The interview process was as vicious as you’d imagine, and I trembled with disbelief when the recruitment office called with the offer. At an annual salary of $60,000, I’d scored my dream job.
Back then I thought being a prosecutor meant pursuing the interests of justice. Punishing the bad guys for crimes against the vulnerable, prosecuting abusers and standing up for victims. Night court, weekend shifts and holidays spent at the office were part of the deal. At first I was just grateful to be there for long days of never-ending work. But justice, I soon discovered, was not such a straightforward thing.
So much of what was deemed “illegal” was criminalized poverty. As an ADA, I saw a lot of teenagers arrested for “trespassing” in public housing, folks with dark-enough skin locked up for marijuana possession or anyone who mouthed off to the wrong cop collared for resisting arrest.
My loans came due during that first grueling year of work, having all been consolidated at an interest rate of around 7%. My first bill came out to about $472 per month. After rent, it was by far the biggest expense of my young life.
By my second year prosecuting, I was burned out. Justice in this system was dingy. All my naive aspiration for a career spent nailing the bad guys was gone. In its place was a continually overdrawn bank account. My parents’ financial help had ceased, but now I found myself calling them to borrow just enough money for a cab home from night court at the blue hours of the morning and to feed myself on deli sandwiches.
I called my loan servicer and begged for options. Less than two years into my career as an attorney, I went into my first period of extended forbearance.
Forbearance meant my monthly payments were paused, but the interest still accrued. Meanwhile, I didn’t move any closer toward the goal of loan forgiveness ― under PSLF, you had to make timely payments to receive credit for the 120 months of public service.
Forbearance was never intended, by me or by design, to be more than temporary. Indeed, the first time I called, they warned me: This would only fly for a few months, then my payments would resume.
Fast forward 20 months. By 2014, my loans had been transferred and my forbearance was still in effect. (Over the next 12 years, my loans would be bought, sold and passed around from one servicing company to the next. The Student Loan Corp., Great Lakes, Department of Education, Granite State, FedLoan Servicing, MOHELA ― I had more loan providers than I had sexual partners in that decade.)
At first, during this forbearance period, I would call once a month and anxiously inquire about payments resuming. Some disinterested representative would tell me it was fine, and I’d hang up, grateful no bill was yet due but fearful about the ever-growing bottom line of my debt.
Life went on. I got married and, with my cost of living now shared, resumed repayment. Fed up with the criminal justice system, I changed jobs. I got a position at a nonprofit that represented domestic violence survivors in family court proceedings and found more meaning in my work. The pay was equally meager, and the family justice system had its pitfalls, too, but at least I was no longer in the misery business of punishing folks on the state’s behalf. Importantly, I was still working toward a PSLF discharge date.
That’s when I started to review my payment counts and realized things weren’t adding up.
I saw that some of the early payments I’d worked so hard to make under my first loan provider weren’t reflected in the records for the subsequent loan companies. I would cross-reference my bank statements with my qualifying payment count and lose my mind. Calls to the companies were met with confusion on their end and dismay on mine. They gave vague directives to upload or fax bank statements with cover letters requesting a “manual review” process. My follow-up calls were met with evasion and no answers.
Once, after complaining about the dysfunction, I was chastised by a representative who said I couldn’t expect the government to forgive my loans without a little grit and tenacity. I smashed the receiver on my crummy office phone down so hard into its cradle that my office mate jumped.
The debt became the crater of my life.
After two years of rocky matrimony, one of my only periods of financial ease, I filed for divorce and was once again faced with managing a household on a public servant’s salary in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Though leaving my husband was a kind of freedom, leaving the comfort of two combined paychecks chained me to the fiscal thrift of public service and the hope of loan forgiveness.
By 2016, my debt was more than $200,000.
By 2019, my PSLF scorecard was at about 60 qualifying payments, although I had bank statement proof that I’d made many more. Officially, I was only halfway to forgiveness, even though I’d been grinding at public service jobs for almost nine years.
My savings were nonexistent, my 401(k) was a joke.
My job at the domestic violence agency wore me down, even though I liked my clients and was honored to fight for them. But I could barely cover my therapy bills, sure I’d never own a home. Being so insolvent as a single woman was deeply disempowering. What kind of power can you have in the world if you can’t even afford a vacation?
That year my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. My work became unbearable. I was in my mid-30s, and intrusive thoughts about my loans became my dark companion. If something tragic befell me, at least my negative net worth wouldn’t matter. I would picture myself at 23, baby-faced and filled with that stupid hope of the young. If only I could slap her, shake her, anything to keep her from law school and these wretched, ceaseless loans.
In desperation, I consulted an attorney who specializes in student debt. He was expensive, but a friend Venmoed me his fee. Millions of borrowers were in a similar position, he told me. The loans were a collective generational disaster ― he predicted mass forgiveness, but in the meantime I just had to make peace with some kind of monthly payment.
Loan payments for all borrowers came to a halt in 2020 during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic. To this day, they haven’t yet resumed as both the Donald Trump and Joe Biden administrations have continued to delay it. In 2021, with my qualifying payments wildly undercounted, I gave up on PSLF and quit public service. I opened a private practice as a therapist and found healing work fulfilled me in the way that doing combat as an attorney never could. But my debt lurked like a specter that could swoop down in a second. My life was still hostage to these loans.
Around that same time, the Biden administration announced a one-time waiver for PSLF borrowers. The program had been so mismanaged that we could get credit for late payments, forbearance periods and other circumstances that would otherwise keep us indentured. Under the waiver, I was theoretically eligible for forgiveness. I resubmitted all of my documents and prayed.
When I called MOHELA, the new loan provider, for an update, I waited on hold for two hours without an answer. In a fit of hope, I scribbled “Celebrate PSLF” on my planner for Dec. 31, 2022. The date came and went, and my $235,000 was still due.
On Jan. 9, that envelope from MOHELA came in the mail. I meant to ignore it until the next day. But I tell my therapy clients to face their greatest source of pain head on, so I opened it up. I ran a quick visualization to steady myself for the knock of seeing another false PSLF count and my overwhelming account balance.
Instead, “Congratulations!” I read. “Thank you for your public service!” My forbearance periods counted as if I had paid. All was forgiven. It was dated Jan. 1, 2023. I fell to my knees and wept.
I’m not alone in my fortune. Many of my old colleagues saw their gargantuan debt wiped out over the past year. To date, the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys in the New York City area alone reports members have had received more than $10 million in loan forgiveness. Type “PSLF” into the search bar of Twitter and you will find tales of joy. For older millennials, it’s been a rare systemic win. One that’s overdue and deserved. I’m now 39 years old, and I just lived the best day of my life.
It’s a wild thing to know freedom in an instant after so many burdened years. That debt was a referendum on my life and my choices ― to attend law school, to become an ADA and then a domestic violence attorney, to leave an unhappy marriage and career. I thought my student loan debt was a punishment for my failings, but in the end it was a master class in forgiveness.
Lee Price is an attorney, writer and somatic therapist. Her essays have appeared in Slate, The Rumpus and Pigeon Pages. She splits her time between North Carolina and New York City and is at work on a memoir. You can find her on Instagram and at lee-price.com.
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