Student Loan Horror: When You Think You Qualify For Debt Relief, Check Again. And Again

A pair of married science teachers were sure they qualified for student debt forgiveness. They discovered what many borrowers learned in the 2010s: not qualifying for aid is the norm.

By Matt Taibbi and cross-posted from TK News.

The romance of Robin and Kevin sounds like the stuff of old ballads. She was quiet and an introvert, he was the extrovert with an elaborate social life, and on the tree-covered campus of Columbia Community College near Sonora, California, they fell in love, while barely young enough to drive.

“Our first date was a walk with friends through the forest behind our dorms,” recalls Kevin. “Our album to sit and listen to was Van Morrison’s Moondance. Robin was my very own Brown Eyed Girl.”

“He knew my weird sense of humor that nobody else would ever get, especially from someone who’s quiet,” recalls Robin, who was seventeen when they met. “And I’d come up with something off the wall and think, ‘Okay that didn’t fly.’ But it would. And it was like, ‘Oh, you understand me.’”

The couple met in 1990, and married four years later. They were not rich people. Robin’s father, a contractor who’d had ups and downs financially, died when she was young. She was raised thereafter by a single mother who’d had to go back to school herself, and was wary of student debt thanks to her own experiences. “She was dead set against it,” Robin remembers.

They were at least debt-free in the early years, however, getting by with minimum-wage or seasonal jobs. Kevin worked as a ski instructor in the winter, and as a raft guide in the summer. They made a plan to get bachelors’ degrees together at Humboldt State University.

“We moved in together,” Robin remembers. “And surprise, I got pregnant.”

With a child on the way, they took out a series of federal loans, in part on the advice of Robin’s mother. “She said, ‘If you’re going to take out loans, make sure that it’s not a private loan, but a subsidized federal loan,’” Robin recalls. They did so and were soon on schedule to graduate and start the next stage after what Robin laughingly describes as their “hippies and Humboldt” years. They were happy, having merely switched one California vista for another.

“We spent those early years on walks in the forests of Northern California, in Columbia,” says Kevin. “Then it was through the redwoods of Redwood Park in the Arcata Community Forest with our newborn son, Gage.”

Life however has more twists and turns than straight lines, a fact that the current student loan system — premised upon timely graduation and immediate gainful employment — does not anticipate.

When the young couple was just a semester away from graduation at Humboldt, Kevin’s father, who ran a small auction house in Sacramento — “antiques, estates, and other stuff,” says Robin — fell ill with cancer. They moved, so Kevin could help maintain the family business while his father convalesced. He learned how to auction, but the couple still had hopes of finishing school.

They took classes at Sacramento State, finished credits for degrees from Humboldt, and then discovered what a lot of young people in the eighties and nineties were learning, that the implied bargain of college — get a degree, get a good job — was less than a concrete proposition. “It was a wake-up call,” Robin says. She remembers an early job selling muffins.

“The muffin route that I took over, was from a beautiful woman, who was very charismatic, bubbly, and stunning,” she recalls, laughing. “She knew her route, and gave me the list, saying, ‘Do these muffins.’ I shadowed her the first day, and she sold them all! ‘Okay,’ I thought. ‘I’ll do the same thing.’ I quickly found that part of the customer attraction was seeing her. I came back with half the muffins.”

After borrowing a collective $31,000 to get Bachelor’s degrees at Humboldt, the couple realized they needed an additional qualification to have real security. “I remember looking at a headline in a newspaper that said, ‘California teacher shortage,’” Robin remembers. They ended up going to Cal-State Chico to get teaching certificates, moving in with Robin’s mother, who had a (very) small house.

“We actually put a tent up in her backyard,” she recalls. “We realized that we’d really hit bottom. I remember, in September of 2001, my mother came outside one morning and said, ‘A plane just crashed into the twin towers.’ I remember that clearly because I was sitting in a tent.”

At Chico State, they learned about new programs, designed to help alleviate student debt through public service. They went through some of the options: Americorps, a program called “Public Service Loan Forgiveness” for taking public-sector jobs, and a program called “Teacher Loan Forgiveness” that canceled up to $17,500 in debt for teachers who taught special needs, math, or science in low-income school districts.

The catch was, you had to work five years at a low-income “Title 1” school in order to qualify for the debt cancelation program. Kevin and Robin were both science teachers. They seemed like natural fits. Then, they made a mistake…

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