Students, families struggle to repay billions in crushing loan debts

Steve and Darnelle Mason made national headlines back in 2014, through their campaign to reform a student loan system that left them with six-figure debt following the death of their 27-year-old daughter, Lisa. 

Four years later, the Masons say that despite their best efforts, they're now even worse off.

Their major problems have stemmed from the loans they inherited from their child that were private, which unlike federal ones are far less forgiving of personal or financial hardships. For that reason, the Mansons are now one of the many families and individuals across American struggling to pay off a total of more than $10 billion in private loans for a college education. 

These private loans make up just 11 percent of an estimated $106 billion in student loans in a year across the country, according to StudentDebtRelief.com . But unlike federal student loans, which tend to cancel debt in the case of the borrower’s death, many of these private loans go after an estate or cosigners.

That was the case with the Masons, who were doggedly pursued by lenders after co-signing Lisa's loans. They kept up payments as best they could. But in the last year, Darnelle Mason became disabled and unable to work, and Steve Mason had to shut down his church.

If I go to Vegas and run up charges on credit cards on gambling and drinking, and couldn’t pay them, I could have the debt discharged. But if you’re trying to get a college education, and have private loans, they don’t care.

- Steve Mason, who is forced to pay private student loan debt of his deceased daughter

“It doesn’t make sense that there’s no way to have student loans discharged,” Steve Mason told Fox News. “If I go to Vegas and run up charges on credit cards on gambling and drinking, and couldn’t pay them, I could have the debt discharged. But if you’re trying to get a college education, and have private loans, they don’t care.”

The Masons were able to negotiate with some of the lenders, who lowered interest rates and reduced the loan amounts. Friends set up a GoFundMe page for them, which raised about $45,000.

But when they were a few days late paying a collection agency, they said, the more generous terms were canceled, and the Masons were hit with the old, higher interest rate and loan amount. Their already strained financial resources were then hit by medical disability, and a drop in their household income.

The struggle and stress, Mason said, are overwhelming.

“We were a two-income family, now my wife can’t work and I’m  making less than the salary I made when I was a minister at the church,” he said, adding that at 63, he has had to try to re-enter the corporate world he left 38 years ago. “We’re making the payments we can, but we can’t make all of them.”

Mason would like to see private loans regulated so that they operate more like federal ones in the event of the borrower’s death.

“Why is it that it’s one of the only kinds of debts you can’t have discharged, even in bankruptcy?” Mason asked.

Student loan debt is a ball and chain for many borrowers, who experience sticker shock when the bills begin to arrive.

The average student debt for the Class of 2017 was $39,400, an increase of six percent over the previous year, according to StudentLoanHero.com  Americans owe more than $1.48 trillion in student loan debt, the site said, a whopping $620 billion more than the total U.S. credit card debt.

That translates into an average monthly student loan payment of $351. Slightly more than 11 percent of borrowers are 90 days behind in their payment or are in default, according to StudentLoanHero.com. 

A 2015 report by StudentLoanHero.com found college-related debt – carried by some 43 million Americans -- prompted more than one in three to postpone buying a house, one in seven to postpone marriage, one in four to live with their parents, and 47 percent to put off buying a car.

“People tell me all the time, ‘I didn’t realize how much in student loans I have,’ and I was one of those people,” said Bobby Hoyt, who is 30 and who paid a $40,000 student loan in less than two years by living frugally, forgoing new clothes, shoes and cable TV, among other things. “I think it’s a systemic issue. High schools push kids to go to college, kids feel they won’t be successful unless they go, they’ll pick a degree that doesn’t have a good job at the end of it, or they bumble around for a few years in college without really knowing what they want.”

“It’s also a personal accountability thing,” said Hoyt, who quit his high school music teaching job to run Millennial Money Man, a website that focuses in great part on student debt and other personal finance issues for the younger generation. In a measure of the salience of the issue of student debt, Millennial Money Man boasts some 2 million readers this year, Hoyt said.

“A lot of students are so focused on school, but not on being super frugal,” Hoyt said, adding that in hindsight, “I would have put money I made from jobs I had in college toward paying my student loans.”

Student Loan Story

Jennifer Rodriguez  (Facebook)

A spokesman for the Consumer Bankers Association, which represents retail lending institutions that offer private student loans, said its members work with borrowers if they’re experiencing hardship, and forgive loans if a borrower dies. The spokesman, Nick Simpson, said the ultimate goal of the banks is to get their money back, and that they screen prospective borrowers to make sure they’re likely to repay their debt.

Simpson said that the federal government can afford to have more leeway because they do not have to deal with the underwriting, unlike banks.

“For federal loans, that leads to over-borrowing, which leads to higher tuition costs,” Simpson said. “Universities get money on the front end."

He said that if students default on federal loans, "it leaves taxpayers responsible for the debt."

Then again, Hoyt notes, college is remarkably expensive.

“If you’re looking at $100,000 for four years of college costs, that is a lot for an average, middle-class family,” Hoyt said. “A lot of millennials are really hustling hard to pay off their student loans. They’re paying second and third jobs to pay their debt. They’re washing cards and mowing yards on the side.”

Fox News spoke with a number of former students holding significant loan debt, each of whom detailed their strategies and struggles in managing their payments. 

Sarah Baran and her husband  (Courtesy of Sarah Baran)

JENNIFER RODRIGUEZ

Jennifer Rodriguez grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. She was the first in her family, which hails from Ecuador, to go to college.

Rodriguez, 25, received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in public health from Rutgers University, finishing her studies in January. She has $95,000 in loans. When the first bill came in July, she was stunned – it was for $1,000.

She was able to qualify for an income-based payment plan, bringing the monthly amount down to $350.

“It helps, but it’s still a large amount, and it means it prolongs the process of paying the student loan,” said Rodriguez, who works for a non-profit.

And the devil in the details also is disheartening – of the $350 per month, a meager $5 goes toward the principal.

“Everything goes to interest, so the balance hardly changes,” said Rodriguez, who worked all throughout college – in retail, in a garment factory and campus jobs -- to help finance other educational costs. “It’s very stressful, very intense, month-to-month.”

SARAH BARAN

Student debt was going to be 'Future Sarah's problem.' 'Future Sarah' would figure it out.

- Sarah Baran

By the time Sarah Baran got the degrees in education she believed would put her on the path to her dream of teaching, she was $200,000 in debt.

The debt wasn’t as high as it might have been had she not won scholarships for her first year, and gotten a college job that covered room and board for two years.

She knew the debt was piling on as she advanced in her studies, but like many college students, she was hopeful that her hard work and investment in her future would parlay into a good job with a solid income.

“Student debt was going to be ‘Future Sarah’s problem,’” Baran, who is 36, recalled thinking at the time, “Future Sarah would figure it out.”

“I thought ‘There’s a teacher shortage, I’ll make good money, I’ll be fine.’”

But reality was different. Baran applied to “every job in the state of Michigan,” but got nothing.

She moved to Pennsylvania with her fiancé, hoping to do better there, but found more disappointment. She was a finalist for a few jobs, but the offer always ended up going to “the other person.”

Baran landed a teaching assistant position, which didn’t pay enough to cover expenses, much less make a dent in the loan. She sent out hundreds of applications to schools all over the country, eventually ending up in Michigan, where she found employment.

Student Loan Story

Dave Barr, founder of Common Cents Millennial  (Courtesy of Dave Barr)

But the pay was not much, she said. Then medical problems - specifically, lyme disease - struck hard and grew worse over time, forcing her to go on medical leave. She has not been able to return to teaching.

The federal loan payments are on hold, though they’re accruing “massive amounts of interest,” Baran said. The private loans must still be paid, so she scrambles to send $370 each month.

“I lie awake in bed, trying to figure out how I will ever get out of this debt,” she said. “It’s causing me a lot of stress.”

She has been crocheting afghans, hoping to sell some, and playing a free trivia game app, Givling, that has 350,000 users and pays winners’ student loan debt. The startup was the idea of Maine resident Libby Pratt, who went through bankruptcy, but came out of it to launch a stockbroker career.

Pratt found it appalling that bankruptcy would not discharge student loans, and thought of Givling as a way to help others fight back.

Baran has a GoFundMe page to raise money to help defray medical costs not covered by insurance. Knowing what she knows now, she said, she would have approached her education differently.

I went to school, studied hard, and got a great job. And yet I really can't start my life for another ten years because my financial situation is completely run by my debt.

- Dave Barr, accountant and money blogger

“I would have applied to a community college. When I started having health problems, I might have stepped back and thought that maybe college isn’t right for me right now, and tried to take care of my health.”

“I would not have gone into education,” she added. “I love my students. But it doesn’t pay the bills.”

DAVE BARR

Dave Barr calls his student debt “one of the biggest struggles of my life so far.”

Barr, who studied accounting, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016 with a $70,000 student loan debt, which now stands at $55,000. When his husband is included, the household student loan debt climbs to $145,000.

“People always ask why we aren't buying a house, a new car, or planning to have kids,” Barr told Fox News. “Try starting your career with each of us paying over $1,000 a month in student debt.

Advancing in our careers is important so that we can continue to pay down our debt as soon as possible.”

“Paying over $1,200 a month on just my debt has severely limited what I can do in life,” noted Barr, an accountant who is a money blogger. “We cannot save for a house, we cannot save for a family, I could barely afford to buy a three year old car. I went to school, studied hard, and got a great job. And yet I really can't start my life for another 10 years because my financial situation is completely run by my debt.”

Barr, who is 24, came from a low-income home, giving him limited financial aid options for college. He lacked credit when he was 18 years old, and his parents did not have good enough credit scores to co-sign a loan. The result was government loans with interest rates above 5 percent, and a private loan with an 11 percent rate.

As he took 18 credits per semester, he worked 30 hours a week to help soften the financial blow, and took courses at a local community college to earn credits in a more affordable way.

“I think it is ridiculous that I could not get a loan for my education under 11 percent interest rates, but I could get a car with an interest rate of 5 percent. I also think it is insane the increase in tuition rates in the past few years compared to any other good or service,” Barr said. “The loan companies are not the only ones to blame, as state funding and tuition charged by schools have not been working in students' best interest.”

“This debt will severely impact my generation's ability to make large purchases and markets for anything not considered essential,” said Barr, who founded a website called CommonCentsMillennial.com  “And it's no secret that there is a major student loan bubble, as the amount of students defaulting on loans has only been increasing."

"This is not a story about irresponsible students wasting their money," Barr said. "We are kids who did what we were told. We worked hard, got into a good college, picked a major that we could make money on, studied harder, got our degree, and were given a job with wages that cannot support the loans we had to take to even get that degree to get that job.”

Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.