Career Confidential: Collecting Student Debt And Feeling Bad About It

“People just don’t have any money.”

Protesters wear signs listing their amounts of student debt at an Occupy Wall Street protest this April. Andrew Burton / Reuters

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I’ve been working in college collections for three years, and for the last two I’ve been at the same private college on the East Coast. I do a ton of different things, but part of my job is trying to get students to actually pay tuition — we let them carry a balance and still enroll in classes, but there’s an upper limit where they have to start paying, either out of pocket or through loans and scholarships, or they have to leave. Getting them to pay has gotten harder since I started: people just don’t have any money.

Every single day I see somebody with a crisis, like their mom lost her job. They were making tuition payments, but then everything went to shit. That’s definitely gotten more common. And I see more students now who show up at school with a balance and have no idea how they’re going to pay it off.

The school I work for has strong charitable values, so I can’t take a hard-line approach in getting people to pay. Being too aggressive doesn’t really work anyway — you can’t get blood from a stone. Usually we contact the student, inform them of their balance, and hope they can make some sort of cash payment. We also suggest that they find outside loans or outside scholarships to help. We’re not allowed to advise students; we can only inform them of their options impartially. So I can’t tell students what to do with their money, that going to school now but coming out $100,000 in debt later might not be the smartest thing for them. Sometimes it’s like watching people dig themselves in a hole.

Once I had a student who owed two-and-a-half years worth of tuition and living expenses to the college. Tuition alone is $15,000 a semester, so the amount he owed was over our limit. He couldn’t pay, so we had to ask him not to register for classes anymore, and we sent his account to a collection agency. Now he has collection costs in addition to his balance. And because he owes the college money, he can’t get his transcript — that’s an across-the-board policy at most colleges. So he has no formal proof that he has this education, which could make it hard to get a job. And he can’t get financing for a car, a house, or more school.

You’d be surprised by the number of people who have no idea what they’re doing. The other day a woman called because she’d tried to get financing for another purchase, and she found out she was in default of student loans. But she had no idea she even had student loans. You have to sign a form to show you understand you’re borrowing money, and I’m looking at the paper where she signed off, and she had no idea what she was signing. You’d think a normal person wouldn’t do that, but I see normal people do it all the time. A lot of times they’re the first person in their family to go to college, they do whatever they can in the moment to get their education, and they don’t realize later what they did.

Protesters hold giant dollar signs at an Occupy Wall Street protest. Andrew Burton / Reuters

Other times students think their parents are taking care of everything. Whenever you take out a loan, you have to sign something called a master promissory note saying you’ll pay it back. If you forget to sign it, eventually the lender will just withdraw the loan. Sometimes students will just assume their parents signed everything and the loan is already in place, and they’re in for a nasty surprise. It’s the student’s responsibility to sign the master promissory note — you’re technically an adult and your parents can’t do this for you.

That’s been getting worse over the years — parents definitely have a much bigger hand in things. I get phone calls from parents and I can’t tell them anything because of federal privacy laws. Parents and kids are both causing this problem — the parents are trying to help but by taking away this responsibility, they’ve left their kids in the dark. Everybody keeps talking about helicopter parenting, but I see it first-hand: people are 20 years old and they’re like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do, talk to my mom.” I want to tell them, “This is your problem!”

The sheer expense of tuition is a huge issue, of course. We hear every day from students that it’s so expensive, even if you just take one class. On the one hand, it’s outrageously expensive to run a school. Someone in our alumni relations department told me recently that the actual sticker price only covers 70 percent of the cost of a student coming here. But on the other hand, it’s still unattainably expensive for these students, and as much as we can preach about knowing what you’re getting into, it’s outrageous. It’s really unfair for students to be building up these massive balances to get an education.

This job has definitely changed how I feel about student debt, especially since I went pretty quickly from being a student to being on the exact opposite end. When I was younger I didn’t think about my student loan burden and how much school really cost. I think a lot of students should consider what major they’re taking, and whether or not they’d be able to carry their debt burden based on the job prospects for that major. I also think we should be teaching financial literacy earlier, before students ever get to college.

I do think that even though students are a bit too eager to take on debt, they still deserve to be able to pursue their dream. We have a lot of low-income students, and it’s physically painful to see politicians talk about cutting Pell grants like it doesn’t matter. We have students getting $3,000 in Pell Grants every semester, which makes a huge difference to them. This job has put a big highlight on their importance for me — I’m kind of in the kids’ corner now.

My job can be sad, but every now and then you have a student who has a balance and doesn’t know what to do, and they just work their asses off with work-study, babysitting, anything to pay off that balance. When a senior gets their balance paid off and they walk across the stage at graduation, it’s just amazing. Everyone always talks about the academic achievement, but the financial challenges can be just as great. They get this great boost, this feeling that they overcame this giant obstacle, and it’s a foundation for the rest of their life. It’s just insane to see someone go from no responsibility to totally with it, like a switch flipped. My title as collections specialist is really scary, but really my job is to help students reach that point where they can really handle what they have to do.

As told to Anna North.

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