Greg Whisenhunt thought he was signing up for a better life when he enrolled in college, but now struggles to get by while he's saddled with a $189,000 educational debt that has forced a lot of belt-tightening and stress.
“Part of the reason I wanted to go to school and get an education is that I didn’t want to have to work a million hours a week just to survive. That’s how my dad was; he didn’t go to college, but he worked his butt off to support his family,” Whisenhunt told TakePart.
Since graduating from Savannah College of Art and Design in 2006, and spending two years at a private tech school, Whisenhunt has been forced to file for bankruptcy.
Though you can’t ever discharge student debt in bankruptcy, it gave him a five-year break from the assault of calls from collection agencies—daily, there were a dozen demanding calls to pay $1,200 a month that he did not have.
Of course, Whisenhunt has downsized and lives modestly because he wants to pay his debt. He moved from a $1,200 a month apartment to living with a roommate for $875. He’s driving a car with more than 230,000 miles on his odometer. He tried taking on freelance work to supplement his full-time job in multimedia development.
No matter what he does, keeping up with the payments are impossible: they are the biggest single bill he gets. At 37, he never expects to buy a house, a new car or to make any of the major investments he hoped an education would help him achieve.
Whisenhunt isn’t alone. Countless Americans are struggling to pay student loan debt in this country, which now tops $1 trillion.
More than 60 percent of students who earn a bachelor’s degree graduate with an average of more than $25,000 in student loan debt, according to the Center for American Progress.
Conservative estimates say there are nearly a million people who have defaulted on their student loans.
Legislative action has been painfully slow for students struggling to make payments. President Barack Obama has announced a push to make schools more competitive, and give students a more realistic concept of what an education will get them. Which helps on the front-end of college costs.
Consumer rights advocate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called for some reforms over the weekend that intend to make it easier for debt to be eliminated if students are forced into bankruptcy.
At a conference at Northeastern University, Warren called for reversing reforms that have made discharging educational debt practically impossible—but she stopped short of providing specifics.
Specifics are what college students like Jamie Adam, 29, hope to see soon.
When she graduates from the University of Utah in May, she will be carrying a $100,000 debt. Without a job, she worries her degree in graphic design will get her as far as her parents’ house.
“I would really love to keep my dinky little apartment, but it’s looking like I’m going to have to move in with my parents,” Adam told TakePart.
Adam remembers looking at loan documents and feeling like she didn’t have much of a choice if she wanted to go to school and get her degree.
“The boilerplate of the loan documents themselves were very confusing,” she said. “They don’t initially tell you it’s going to be this life-altering, gut-crushing debt.”
She has long dreamt of working for a company like DreamWorks, but that seems unlikely when she can't scrape together enough money to move to California.
When she looks back on the decision to go to school, Adam has started to wonder if it was worth it.
When she talks to her friends, they like to make jokes about better ways to spend her $100,000 student loan debt.
“It would be more financially responsible to buy a Lamborghini on credit, or a bullet bike and ride it with no helmet—that would be more financially responsible than all this debt" without having a job lined up, said Adam.
"I seriously don't think school right now, the way it’s being handled, is worth the cost."