Borrowers saddled with unmanageable student debt may wonder if they should have avoided college altogether.
Don’t have second thoughts, one expert said — but with caveats.
“Higher education is absolutely worth it,” Natalia Abrams, founder and president of the Student Debt Crisis Center, recently told Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “But student loans, no.”
Americans owe over $1.7 trillion in federal student loan debt with a million borrowers defaulting every year. But at the same time, the cost of attendance — tuition, fees, room and board — has tripled in the past four decades such that even with financial aid, many lower and middle-income families can’t afford it, creating a “funding gap,” according to a Brookings Institution study.
That’s why the rely on student loans.
“It’s a difficult financial product for people to take on and there’s so much dishonesty that goes on the back end,” Abrams said. “So for loan borrowers, they may not feel that the loan itself is worth it, but the education is.”
One reason education is worth it has to do with job prospects. By 2027, 40% of all jobs are expected to require a bachelor’s or master’s degree, according to AAUW research.
And a majority of Americans do view higher education as valuable to get a well-paid stable career, according to New America’s Seventh Annual Survey on Higher Education, but they also believe it is unaffordable.
“We made a promise to young people in this country for generations… work hard, go to school, get good grades, you’ll go to a great college and that’s your ladder into thriving in this country,” Blake Zeff, the director of “Loan Wolves,” a documentary about student loans, told Yahoo Finance Live. “Guidance counselors would tell these kids don’t worry about these loans, you’ll get a great job when you graduate. Everyone has these loans, and you’ll pay them down easily.”
“The truth is these loans are very complicated financial instruments… have compounding interest, which means that you could start paying down your debt right after college, but the interest is so high it multiplies and becomes impossible to get out from under it,” Zeff said.
Fortunately, as of July 1, the Department of Education has eliminated the interest capitalization for borrowers in most income-driven repayment (IDR) plans, except the IBR plan due to statutory regulations. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help borrowers who for years had interest capitalized, turning a small principal balance into six-figure debt.
“In the documentary, Scott was the first person in his family to ever go to college and got a master’s degree to be a teacher,” Zeff said. “Scott initially was $35,000 in debt, but is now over $100,000 in debt due to interest.”
When borrowers start repayment, it is the loan servicer that typically tells them about their repayment options.
However, loan servicers haven’t always been fully transparent with borrowers, which is why the Biden administration is implementing the one-time IDR payment adjustment that counts certain previously ineligible months toward forgiveness. That helps to reverse some of the damage caused by servicers that did not properly track deferments or steered borrowers to forbearance instead of income-driven repayment plans that would have counted toward years of payment.
“The real problem with student loans is on the back end with compounding capitalizing events that is not explained by the loan servicer,” Abrams said. “Our tax dollars pay for these loan servicers to just create more money problems for the student loan borrower.”
Ronda is a personal finance senior reporter for Yahoo Finance and attorney with experience in law, insurance, education, and government. Follow her on Twitter @writesronda.