Letter to a Young Borrower

Why You Must Fight for Cancellation

David Tapia San Martin / Unsplash

Prior to the pandemic, Navient, the country’s second largest student loan servicer, contacted my close friend, urging her to share her story as a person successfully repaying her debt. “In today’s world,” they wrote, “it’s not always easy to manage debt, use credit wisely, and keep up with the demands of your career and personal life. But you’re doing it, and we applaud your success. Would you be willing to share your success story with other people who are currently repaying their student loans? Your story could be featured on our website and help inspire others on the journey to financial success.” [The bold print is theirs.]

The word success is used not once, not twice, but three times. Repayment equals success.

I recently paid off my undergraduate student loans — after 25 arduous years — and the narratives surrounding repayment have been on my mind. It seems to be one of the student loan industry’s greatest weapons.

For decades stories boasting the ease of “fast” or “early” repayment have bedazzled the internet. The headings always involve quantities of money: “New York Woman Pays 102K in Student Loans” or “Bye, Bye 50K: How I Paid Off My Student Loans Fast.” Each tale involves sacrifice, like moving in with parents (if welcome) or not going out to dinner for several years. Charts are given. And lists.

Use Groupons. Find furniture in the trash. Consume rice.

It’s that simple.

In Reddit’s Student Loan forum, several posters brag about repayment almost every week and I often suspect they work for the student loan industry. Just a few days ago a person who owed 138K was ecstatic about paying off $2000. “This is a big deal for me because just last year I had no idea how to make ends meet,” the poster explained and concluded: “It feels oh so good.”

Of course, many sorrowful stories about repayment also exist, stories which often denote a level of compromise and struggle that seems almost dystopian, if not criminal, like M.H. Miller’s “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Debt to Me,” which chronicles the burden his loans put on himself and his working-class parents. Also high on my heartbreak list is Caroline Henley’s essay “My Secret to Paying Off My Student Loans: My Mother Died,” which describes the guilty exchange of a treasured life for the relief of repayment (through a life insurance claim).

I suppose I too have my own story of repayment, but my writerly talents fail me in this regard. It went on so long that it is now a blur of phone calls and money charts and disturbing checking account balances. My for-profit servicer — Sallie Mae who later blossomed into Navient — often pretended to help and lured me into forbearances and a consolidation, in an effort to strip me of government protections and compound my debt.

In the same way that not all of us were born artists or healers or priests, not all of us were born capitalists. But student loan debt indoctrinates all of us into the capitalist worldview. Even if you went to school for social work and never wanted a yacht or a personal helicopter, your values are co-opted by a preoccupation with money, and the numerous limitations you face without it.

I can also tell you that the periods in which I focused primarily on repayment were the most wasteful. Yet when I invested in myself, not debt, and gave that investment top priority, I lived the most fully, acquired the most skills, and met people who changed my existence.

In its purest sense, I lived this way in my 20s. I traveled. I dined in public. I took risks. And to be honest, I don’t know who I’d be if I had not afforded myself such kindness.

In my 30s, the debt defined my days. There were certain years in which I didn’t board a plane, which meant I didn’t see people I loved. As a first-generation college student, I had thought my education would help me go more places, rather than less.

“This is what student loan debt takes from us,” Caroline Henley writes, “not just our paychecks but our relationships and our ability to have full lives with the people we love.”

In terms of “success,” the longer you live with debt, the more difficult it is to uphold what means most to you, and the more apt you are to become that character in a movie who lives the same day over and over, not doing what you always wanted to do — until something miraculous happens.

And what is that miracle? In the student loan narrative?

Being debt free!

But once you reach that feat, it’s like leaving an abusive relationship. There’s residual regret for the time lost, as well as a great grief for your younger self who dealt with so many beautiful days, so many beautiful moments, with a sickle of numbers hanging overhead.

Recently I reread Rilke’s Letters to A Young Poet and discovered one of the best descriptions of the student loan burden. The passage is not about debt exactly, but it is:

… almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension that we find paralyzing because we no longer hear our surprised feelings living. Because we are alone with the alien thing that has entered into our self; because everything intimate and accustomed is for an instant taken away; because we stand in the middle of a transition where we cannot remain standing. For this reason the sadness too passes: the new thing in us, the added thing, has entered into our heart, has gone into its inmost chamber and is not even there any more, — is already in our blood. And we do not learn what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing has happened and yet we have changed, as a house changes into which a guest has entered.

Or a burglar. Or a parasite.

“Looking back on your education,” Navient asks in a questionnaire on its website, “what would you change if you were to do it all over again?”

“Choose a major that pays better” is one option. Another is: “Would not attend college at all.”

The majority of borrowers currently featured on Navient’s Success Stories page, the page for which they tried to recruit my friend, are men of color and women.

The Student Borrower Protection Center issued a report last summer arguing that “America’s student debt crisis is a civil rights crisis.” The same study found that default is 2–7 times higher in non-white neighborhoods in Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York, and Washington D.C.

According to Student Loan Planner, a debt advisory group, one in 15 borrowers has considered suicide because of their loans. To non-borrowers, this may seem extreme; but to some of you it may be understandable, if not normal.

But it isn’t normal, despite all the efforts to normalize it. No other country allows, or expects, a young person to carry so much debt for pursuing an education.

It is our great invention: every morning you wake, more interest accrues, and this interest inevitably makes its way to CEOs and shareholders, turning a subset of American society into “live” stock.

This dynamic is not about advancement or opportunity or success. It’s about being born into a certain zip code, a certain skin, a certain country where the only way to educate yourself, given your predicament, is to owe.

And given that the other side of repayment may only offer a sense of stolen optimism and stolen agency, now is the time to push, my dear borrow, and I mean push with all your might — Tweet, write, commune, join Reddit’s student loan forum, follow The Debt Collective and other activists — and demand the Biden administration cancel all student loan debt.

You can do it. I just know you can.

Novelist and Writer. Talker and Person. Sometimes humorous, sometimes not.

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