Poll: Student loan borrowers pile on credit card debt and forgo everyday services


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Private student loan borrowers are so hard up for money within eight years of leaving college that about half have had to let go of everyday services like cable TV and Internet access, and more than a third have borrowed from friends or family just to keep up with their college debt payments and meet basic living expenses.

Young Invincibles, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding opportunities for people age 18 to 34, conducted an online survey from March to April. The organization polled 9,523 private student loan borrowers and found many are piling on credit card debt, relying on close family and friends for financial support and working second and third jobs.

Even after taking these steps, they still find themselves in default, up to having their wages garnished in some cases.

"I asked if we could work out a deal to lower my payments because both my grace period and forebearance terms were up ... and I had just started part-time work and could not afford payments," one borrower told the researchers. "They told me there was 'nothing they could do' repeatedly, and repeatedly tried to get me to make a payment right then.

"I still can't make payments, my account is months past due and they still contact me at least six times a day, but are still unwilling to work out a more manageable payment amount."

The median private debt held by these respondents was between $25,000 and $35,000. About 12 percent had between $50,000 and $75,000 in private debt, and about 16 percent had $75,000 or more in private debt. To make matters worse, almost all of them -- 94 percent -- held federal student loan debt, too.

The survey respondents were, for the most part, low-to-moderate income earners. About 40 percent earned less than $25,000 a year, and more than three-quarters earned less than $50,000 a year.

Young Invincibles conducted the survey to find out what challenges private student loan borrowers faced in making their payments. While many federal student loan borrowers also have high debt burdens, they benefit from income-based repayment, deferments and forebearances. Private loan borrowers, on the other hand, have fewer options to lower or defer payments when the chips are down.

"Many people of this generation are being forced to push back their dreams because of student debt," said Rory O'Sullivan, policy director for Young Invincibles. "However, there are many challenges facing this generation, such as high unemployment and lack of health insurance. These things make it that much harder for our generation to afford their student debt."

High student loan debt -- private and federal -- is clearly a roadblock to purchasing a home or other big ticket items.

About 15 percent of the borrowers said they had been denied a mortgage because of their debt; 28 percent had taken on credit card debt to keep up with loan payments; 35 percent had borrowed from friends and family to make ends meet; and 76 percent are unable to save for the future because of their student loan payments.

"I have a steady income with which I can pay off my loans," one borrower wrote, "but the high monthly payments keep me from saving enough money to get my footing in this economy."

A small minority of the respondents -- 6.9 percent -- said their private loan payments were affordable and reasonable.

The impact of student loan payments on young borrowers is not limited to their households, said Pittsburgh financial adviser Ron Heakins. He said the growing student debt crisis will have ripple effects on the larger economy, especially as it relates to the housing market.

"According to the Fed, one-third of student loan borrowers are now delinquent on their debts," said Mr. Heakins, president of OakTree Investment Advisors in Shadyside. "Not only does this badly affect their current credit ratings, but also it is likely to keep them out of the mortgage market for years."

Although the national housing market is improving, he said homeowners are not likely to see the type of real estate appreciation they saw in the 1980s, 1990s and the early 2000s, because the nation does not have a younger population that can afford to buy entry-level houses.

"If one-third of people with student debt are delinquent, the other two-thirds are making payments, but how many of them are struggling, living at home with mom and dad?" he asked.

"Mom and dad are not retiring because junior is at home and they are fearful of retiring because kids are still depending on them. Meanwhile, the parents are holding onto jobs youngsters can't get."

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Tim Grant: tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591.


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