Ingham’s son held a couple of jobs after he left Catholic University, but he was laid off in October 2009 and has not found work since. When his son could not repay his loans, a Sallie Mae collection agency took the family to court, seeking to place a lien on the Inghams’ condominium in suburban Edina.
“It’s a nice condo, and I worked my butt off for years to get this thing. Now we don’t know what the heck is going to happen,” David Ingham said. “We’re in a free fall right now.”
While Ingham says he and his family are in a state of shock and depression, others are angry and defiant.
More than 125,000 people have signed an online petition to protest a $50 forbearance fee that Sallie Mae, the private student loan giant, had been charging borrowers for years whenever they deferred payments on a loan. Federal programs that provide the preponderance of loans do not charge such fees.
Stef Gray, a Hunter College graduate from New York who has paid $300 in forbearance fees to the company since May, organized the petition drive in hopes of persuading Sallie Mae to drop the fee, just as Bank of America and other financial institutions dropped unpopular fees in the face of Internet protests.
Gray, 23, who lives in Brooklyn, has become a symbol of the plight of young Americans saddled with debt. With both her parents deceased, Gray has put herself through school with part-time jobs and three private loans with Sallie Mae.
Since graduating in May with a master’s degree in geographic information systems, Gray has been unable to find full-time employment. Instead, she says, she has gotten by with temporary jobs and waitressing. Without a steady income, she says, it has been impossible to make the $700 monthly payments on her $40,000 in loans. Nor has she been able to consolidate the loans or negotiate more favorable terms with Sallie Mae.
Every time she deferred a payment on the three loans, Sallie Mae slapped her with a $50 forbearance fee for each loan.
“That may not sound like a lot of money to some,” she said. “But for me, with no parents, struggling to get by without a job and not receiving any unemployment, that’s a lot of money.” Because of the compounding effect of the interest rate on the unpaid portion of her loan and related penalties, Gray says, her original $40,000 loan has grown to $65,000.
Early in February, Sallie Mae announced it was changing how it would handle the $50 fee. The company declined to end the penalty, but said it would apply the money toward the borrower’s loan balance after six consecutive on-time payments. Sallie Mae originated $2.7 billion in private loans in 2011 alone, or about a third of all private student loans.
“The economy poses a significant challenge, but the overwhelming majority of our customers are successful in managing their obligations,” Sallie Mae spokesperson Patricia Christel said. “Only 3.5 percent of our private education loans default, and no one benefits in that situation. That is why we work so diligently to reach customers and counsel them.”
Gray called the policy change a “partial victory.” Gray and other organizers met recently in Washington with Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-Mich.) to enlist his support against the Sallie Mae fee. Clarke has introduced a bill that would provide student loan forgiveness as a means of economic stimulus.
“They put me in a situation where either I pay this fee or I’m faced with default,” Gray said. “And if I default, I may never be able to buy a home at all, or rent an apartment again, or buy a car, or get a job, with employers checking credit when hiring. I think it’s ridiculous that I have to keep upholding credit card companies as much kinder to their debtors than [student loan] lenders.”
Because of changes in the federal law, it is almost impossible for a graduate or his family to discharge federal or private student loans through bankruptcy. Sallie Mae says it supports reform that would allow federal and private student loans to be dischargeable in bankruptcy for those who have made a good-faith effort to repay their student loans and still experience financial difficulty.
Pianin is Washington editor for the Fiscal Times, an independent news organization that provides original reporting and analysis on fiscal and economic matters.