A True Story about Student Loans

There are a lot of people who talk about student loans who actually know nothing about them -- even people who work for the Dept of Education that oversees them. They know nothing about them because they don't live with them and the arcane processes that the government and private servicers and lenders have developed to keep people who took those loans out in perpetual debt. I thought I would shed some light on what it is like to live with student loan debt for decades even though you should have qualified for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program years ago. Something like only 1% of people with student loan debt have had their loans forgiven. That number should appall you. The whole system should appall you. 


Let's  start with my situation going into college so readers understand how and why student loans happen to begin with, especially in a pre-2008 crisis world:

I was a first generation college student living in a house where the rule was 18 and out. We were not provided any funds to college if we chose to go that route nor were we allowed to live at home. That meant that regardless of what the FAFSA report which I was required to fill out said about "parental contribution", there simply was none. And, given my father's income at the time, there was no financial aid for me that wasn't a loan. 

So, it was 1993 and I worked about 30-40 hours a week at Red Lobster and took out student loans to pay for college and all of my living expenses. The two things my father paid for were my car insurance and health insurance. My mother sent me $300/month to help with rent and such. I lived in San Diego, which even then was too expensive for a teen trying to go to college and live on their own at the same time. I went to UCSD, where tuition cost $1800 per year when I started and cost $4200 per year when I finished. Then there were books, other fees, parking and transportation, rent, food, utilities, etc. I was at UCSD from 1993 to 1997 and accumulated $18k in student loans through the direct federal subsidized and unsubsidized loan programs. Then, I went to graduate school.

I was in graduate school for an MA and a PhD at Ohio State from 1997-2003. I finished fast by Humanities standards. My first year was unfunded and out of state tuition was $18,000/year. I took out direct federal student loans and worked at another Red Lobster. I was put on funding my 2nd year. Our funding package covered tuition and paid us $10,000 per year. We were paid for 9 months and expected to save to cover our unfunded summers, unless you were one of the lucky 3 people who got summer funding (always senior students and frequently the same 3-5 students). With that 10k per year (which rose to 14k by my 5th year), we were to cover all our expenses that weren't tuition. We were not supposed to work more than 10/hrs per week in an outside job per the conditions of our TA position.  I finished graduate school with a combined undergrad/grad debt of $110,000.

Now, because I had no support for undergrad, that means I came to grad school not only with student loans but also with other debt. Because my first year was unfunded, I also took on more debt. I had to pay for all of my own expenses from the time I graduated from high school. That means that I started accumulating debt from the moment I started college. And I never stopped. Because debt always creates more debt. And because I do not have any inherited wealth and had no family support, as a first gen student, I started off in debt and will likely continue in debt until I die and if the loans are not paid off then, they will try to extract it from my spouse or child. I went to only state schools and either didn't have a car or drove variously a stripped down toyota truck or a ford festiva because neither San Diego not Columbus have ever had very robust public transportation options. I lived at times with as many as 4 other people to try to keep expenses low. But school and living costs only increased as the years went on.

When I got my first job out of grad school, it paid $42,000/year to live in Washington DC. I had $110,000 in student loan debt. And DC was expensive. My then servicer suggested I consolidate my loans to help keep the payments down and then used an extended payment plan for high debt. There were no income contingent payment plans in 2003, so this was the best thing to do. Otherwise, $800/month of my $3000/month income would have gone to student loans and I would not have been able to pay anything else really. Not in DC.  Instead I paid $500. My rent was $2000. 

But, here is the part that is important: when my student loans were consolidated, they were moved to a new type of loan and in the computer system, it looks like my Direct Federal Student Loans taken out from 1993-2003 were paid off. Because that is how consolidation works -- the company that takes on the loan, buys it from the lender. So, my 10 years of different loans now looked like 1 single loan taken out in 2003. 

In 2007, the government initiated the PSLF program.  I was a professor and so my employment qualified me. But they only counted any employment that started after 2007 and no loan payment before 2007 would count. So, basically, in 2007, the clock started. In 2009, I applied for the income based repayment plan that also started around 2007. It cut my monthly payments in half. But, my servicer's website advised that we apply for the program only when we became eligible for forgiveness, i.e. after 10 years. The website also did not explain that even if you took out Direct Federal Student Loans, once you consolidated those loans, they no longer qualified for the program

Fast forward to 2014. I decided on the advice of friends, to send in the app for the PSLF program just to see where I stand and get a payoff number. Technically, it was 7 years from when the program started and I had been making payments of qualifying level that whole time. BUT! And here is the big BUT. When I applied, I was told that my loans did not qualify because ONLY Direct Federal Student Loans qualified. And it was only at this time that they explained to me that my Direct Federal Student Loans had not been consolidate AS Direct Federal Student Loans, but as one of the servicer's private loan types.  

It was, of course, to the servicer's benefit, not mine, to have my loans consolidated that way and it was the loan industry that lobbied hard to limit the loan forgiveness program to only Direct Federal Loans. That meant that all the loans they had consolidated away from that program to their own programs would NOT qualify. And, even though thousands of us had originally taken out Direct loans, our debt could not be discharged under the new program even when we had both qualifying employment and had been paying them regularly and without default or forbearance for over a decade already. 

So, in 2014, I initiated a reconsolidation of my loans to return them to the Direct Federal Student Loan program so that I could qualify for the PSLF program. But every reconsolidation wipes out the previous payments. I had, at this point, never missed a payment since 2003 and had even been in the qualifying payment types and in a qualifying job since the beginning of PSFL, but the clock started ALL OVER in 2015 when my loans were move BACK into the Direct Federal Loan program. If you go into my loans right now, it says that the loans were initiated in 2015 and I now only have 78 qualifying payment. I still owe $50,780 in 2021 and still have until 2025 until I qualify for PSLF (if we still have the program and the then administration actually follows through). 

So, to recap, I took out my original loans from the direct federal program between 1993-2003. I have not missed a single payment over that time and have paid off $60,000 of the loans plus about $30,000 in interest. Because, of course, when your loan payments string out over 20 years, even at 3% interest, that is tens of thousand of dollars. My own child will be starting college in 2024 and I have almost no accumulated savings to cover those costs. Because how can you save when you have spent 20 years paying 25% of your monthly income to student loans?  My own child's college choices will be limited because I have student loan debt. And I have student loan debt because I had no parental support to go to college. 


This is how generational debt is perpetuated. This is why social mobility in America is a lie. The entire student loan structure is about getting people into debt with promises of a better life and then keeping them in debt to transfer any wealth we may accumulate in that "better life" to the banks and other already wealthy classes. And then when the debt reaches crisis proportions for masses of people, they turn it around and say "oh, but you don't deserve loan forgiveness because you were irresponsible." No, my friends. I and people like me have been very responsible and have been diligently working to pay for everything. The system is just designed to make that as difficult as possible. We deserve to have our loans forgiven because we have more than already paid them off!  The system has been changed over and over again, however, to make it so that never happens. Or only happens after lenders have milked as much EXTRA from us as they can get away with. 

If we stopped owing money, then how would rich companies and people stay rich? How would they ensure that any wealth that might accumulate to the lower and middle classes would trickle up to them? Because THAT is the legacy of trickle down economics -- almost all the money has transferred upwards and student loan debt has been one of the tools in the capitalist toolkit to ensure it keeps doing so. 

PS. If you want to know why only 78 of my 80 payments qualify? When I was transferring from the income based repayment plan back to the standard plan, the loan servicer took out two withdrawals in the same month. So, according to the system, their servicing error looks instead like I made an extra payment which means that both of those payments they took out do not qualify as "qualifying payments". Their banking error, my penalty. 


One month after writing this blog post, I received the email telling me that under the temporary expansion of what count as eligible payments, my loans have been forgiven. 

SECOND EDIT:   I got a refund for 9 overpayments on my loan (at $809.74 each). Had there not been a payment moratorium during COVID, I would have gotten all of those payments back as well. Because I ended up overpaying by years for the program. But they are now working to make things right for us.


Talking about Race and Ethnicity in Greco-Roman Antiquity

A couple of years ago, I gave a talk that was the seed of a book I am now in the process of finishing up discussing whether or not we can talk about the ideas of race and ethnicity outside of modern contexts. I posted the talk on the blog here and it seems to continue to be of interest to readers. There, I posited rethinking how we deploy those terms given that it has been the practice of those working in the discipline called "Classics" especially to just use them interchangeably, under the misconception that the terms are really just marking the same concepts. The result has been as one might expect -- from about the 1960 until 2010-ish, we only had scholarship on antiquity that talked about "ethnicity" and now, we are getting a lot of scholarship that is talking about ethnicity in Greco-Roman antiquity, but is calling it "race." We are also getting more studies that are talking about Blackness, Black people, or Africans in the ancient Mediterranean, as "race in antiquity". Very few scholars of antiquity are actually studying "race" as it is understood by sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers and legal scholars of race, some of which falls under the penumbra of Critical Race Theory™(OH NOES!).

My own work in this area has changed a lot over the last decade as I have engaged more and more deeply with both the theories and the histories of race and ethnicity in the modern world AND identity formation in Greco-Roman antiquity. Where I once followed the party line of using ethnicity and treating "race" as only a modern phenomenon, I now recognize that my mistake rested in thinking that "race" was actually a biological thing (even if I recognized it was an imaginary one) and so could only manifest in modernity. Simultaneously, in recognizing that "race" is really something quite different than its modern biological manifestation, I have also recognized that we can't simply use the words race and ethnicity interchangeably because they signify different relationships to identity. In other words, I have had to get serious about the research because these ideas are complex and just using the terms as we do in everyday life or as they are found in our Greek and Latin lexicons can be worse than not using them at all. 

The result of all of this research is that in order to write my current book (Ancient Identities/Modern Politics: Race and Ethnicity in Greco-Roman Antiquity, for Johns Hopkins University Press), I have had to develop a working vocabulary and clearly articulated definitions so as not to muddle the already muddied waters where race and antiquity and its modern receptions are involved.  As I have been giving talks around and about on the material from the book, I have found it is helpful for audiences to know how I am using these terms. Some of it I've already highlighted in my work on metics (a version of which is posted here), some of it will appear in a forthcoming article in Classical Outlook on teaching race and ethnicity in the Latin classroom, and some of it will appear in a forthcoming Classical Review review of he new Cambridge Greek Lexicon. But, I thought maybe it might be helpful to others to see these working definitions all together in one place. So, here they are.


Race: a technology or doctrine of population management that institutionalizes ethnic prejudice, oppression, and inequality based on imaginary and changeable signifiers for human difference, signifiers that manifest differently in different times and places (i.e. it is historically contingent and fluid). Race is, in many instances, a biologized type of class system. 

Biorace: One form of “race”; a fiction that certain visible physical characteristics and blood/biological descent among people are signs of moral and intellectual abilities and that people can be classified along the lines of these biological differences for explaining social, political, and economic inequalities. Common forms of biorace are skin color designations (somatic race) and genetic identities.

Ethnicity: a group identity shaped according to changing needs and contexts that most frequently reflects a form of self-grouping or identification of others based on a belief in shared characteristics that may include cultural practices, geography, and/or a notion of imagined shared descent or kinship. 

Racism: an ideology; the practice of a double standard that naturalizes the idea that human differences signify superiority or inferiority. These double standards enable and reinforce prejudice and justify oppression. 

Racecraft: "the practical, day to day actions that reproduce the imaginary, pervasive belief in natural distinctions between the groups." (Fields and Fields (2013) 18-19.

Race-making: the process by which communities define their in and out groups and develop justifications for and enforcement mechanism for maintaining these distinctions. Race-making institutionalizes ethnic and/or class prejudices along "natural" criteria.

White supremacism
: a specific racial ideology based on the assumption of superiority of a “White” race over other groups or of a “White” norm or neutral position from which everyone else diverges. It is not an extreme form of individual racism, but a structure; one can have White supremacism without overt racism. White supremacism describes a conceptual system (often concealed) that centers and supports a group called “White” against those excluded from the category. The category itself is historically contingent.

Race science: the actual categories and typologies still used in physical anthropology and population genetics. The science of categorizing people through biological or genetic expressions (phenotype). A form of racecraft for maintaining biorace as a way of categorizing peoples.

Scientific racism: racist ideas that dress themselves up in “science” to justify their claims, like the idea the IQ is linked to skin color or the idea that violence is correlated to bioracial categories.

Western: A term generally used to refer to Western and Central European countries and some of their colonial offspring (like the United States, Australia and New Zealand). Israel is also included frequently under the category, while Russia and eastern Europe frequently are not.

Western exceptionalism: The idea that countries included in the category of “western” have a distinctive destiny or historical trajectory that marks them as special and superior to those outside the group. Such “exceptionalism” is said to be rooted in specific values embraced by the west as foundational to their identity. "Western Civilization" is one packaging of western exceptionalism most frequently understood within a "clash of civilizations" model.

Classics: a specific packaging of the ancient Mediterranean world as an explicitly Greco-Roman world that developed beginning in the middle of the 18th century and became embedded within academic contexts. “Classics” came to be primarily identified with the ancient Greek and Latin languages in universities. “Classics” is not the content of antiquity, but a specific way of studying it and viewing it.

Some works informing these definitions and/or which are otherwise enlightening:

Appiah, A. 2019. The Lies That Bind. Liverlight. 

Bell, D. 2020 Dreamworlds of Race: Empire and the Utopian Destiny of Anglo-America (Princeton University Press).

Birney, E., Inouye, M., Raff, J., Rutherford, A. and Scally, A., 2021. “The language of race, ethnicity, and ancestry in human genetic research.” arXiv preprint arXiv:2106.10041.

Bonnett, A., 2016. “Whiteness and the West.” In New geographies of race and racism. (Routledge) 31-42.

Bonilla-Silva, E. 2018. Racism without Racists. 5th edition. Rowan and Littlefield. 

Fields, K. and B. Fields 2012 Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life. Verso.

Ifekwunigwe, J., J. Wagner, J-H. Yu, T. Harrell, M. Bamshad,and C. Royal. 2017. "A Qualitative Analysis of How Anthropologists Interpret the Race Construct" American Anthropologist 119: 422-434.

Mullings, L., J.B. Torres, A. Fuentes, C. Gravlee, D. Roberts, and Z. Thayer. 2021. "The Biology of Racism" American Antrhopologist 123: 671-680.

Sheth, F. Towards a Political Philosophy of Race. SUNY Press.