The long read: MH Miller left university with a journal full of musings on Virginia Woolf and a vast financial burden. He is one of 44 million US graduates struggling to repay a total of $1.4tn. Were they right to believe their education was priceless?
On Halloween in 2008, about six weeks after Lehman Brothers collapsed, my mother called me from Michigan to tell me that my father had lost his job in the sales department of Visteon, an auto parts supplier for Ford. Two months later, my mother lost her job working for the city of Troy, a suburb about half an hour from Detroit. From there our lives seemed to accelerate, the terrible events compounding fast enough to elude immediate understanding. By June, my parents, unable to find any work in the state where they spent their entire lives, moved to New York, where my sister and I were both in school. A month later, the mortgage on my childhood home went into default.
After several months of unemployment, my mother got a job in New York City, fundraising for a childrens choir. In the summer of 2010, I completed my studies at New York University, where I received a BA and an MA in English literature, with more than $100,000 of debt,for which my father was a guarantor. My father was still unemployed and my mother had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. She continued working, though her employer was clearly perturbed that she would have to take off every Friday for chemotherapy. To compensate for the lost time, on Mondays she rode early buses into the city from the Bronx, where, after months of harrowing uncertainty, my parents had settled. She wanted to be in the office first thing.
In January 2011, Chase Bank took full possession of the house in Michigan. Our last ties were severed by an email my father received from the realtor, who had tried and failed to sell the property, telling him he could now cancel the utilities. In May, I got a freelance contract with a newspaper that within a year would hire me full-time paying me, after taxes, roughly $900 every two weeks. In September 2011, my parents were approved for bankruptcy, and in October, due to a paperwork error, their car was repossessed in the middle of the night by creditors. Meanwhile, the payments for my debt which had been borrowed from a variety of federal and private lenders, most prominently Citibank totalled about $1,100 a month.
Now 30, I have been incapacitated by debt for a decade. The delicate balancing act that my family and I perform in order to make a payment each month has become the organising principle of our lives. I am just one of 44 million borrowers in the US who owe a total of more than $1.4 trillion in student loan debt. This number is almost incomprehensibly high, and yet it continues to increase, with no sign of stopping. Legislation that might help families in financial hardship has failed in Congress. A bill introduced in May 2017, the Discharge Student Loans in Bankruptcy Act, which would undo changes made to the bankruptcy code in the early 2000s, stalled in committee. Despite all evidence that student loan debt is a national crisis, the majority of the US government the only organisation with the power to resolve the problem refuses to acknowledge its severity.
My debt was the result, in equal measure, of a chain of rotten luck and a system that is an abject failure by design. My parents never lived extravagantly. In the first years of their marriage, my father drove a cab. When they had children and my father started a career in the auto industry, we became firmly middle-class, never wanting for anything, even taking vacations once a year, to places like Myrtle Beach or Miami. Still, there was usually just enough money to cover the bills car leases, a mortgage, groceries. My sister and I both attended public school. The cost of things was discussed constantly. In my freshman year of high school, I lost my yearbook, which cost $40; my mother very nearly wept. College, which cost roughly $50,000 a year, was the only time that money did not seem to matter. Well find a way to pay for it, my parents said repeatedly, and if we couldnt pay for it immediately, there was always a bank willing to give us a loan. This was true even after my parents had both lost their jobs amid the global financial meltdown. Like many well-meaning but misguided baby boomers, neither of my parents received an elite education, but they nevertheless believed that an expensive school was not a waste of money; it was the key to a better life for their children. They continued to put faith in this falsehood even after a previously unimaginable financial loss, and so we continued spending money that we didnt have money that banks kept giving to us.
I have spent a great deal of time during the last decade shifting the blame for my debt. Whose fault was it? My devoted parents, for encouraging me to attend a school they couldnt afford? The banks, which should have never lent money to people who clearly couldnt pay it back to begin with, continuously exploiting the hope of families like mine, and quick to exploit us further once that hope disappeared? Or was it my fault for not having the foresight to realise it was a mistake to spend roughly $200,000 on a school where, in order to get my degree, I kept a journal about reading Virginia Woolf? (Sample passage, which assuredly blew my mind at the time: We are interested in facts because we are interested in myth. We are interested in myth insofar as myth constructs facts.) The problem, I think, runs deeper than blame. The foundational myth of an entire generation of Americans was the false promise that education was priceless that its value was above or beyond its cost. College was not a right or a privilege, but an inevitability on the way to a meaningful adulthood. What an irony that the decisions I made about college when I was 17 have derailed such a goal.
After the dust settled on the collapse of the economy, on my familys lives, we found ourselves in an impossible situation: we owed more each month than we could collectively pay. And so we wrote letters to Citibanks mysterious PO box address in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, begging for help, letters that I doubt ever met a human being. We grew to accept Citibank as a detestable Moloch that we feared and hated, but were made to worship. The letters began to comprise a diary for my father in particular, a way to communicate a private anguish that he mostly bottled up, as if he was storing it for later. In one letter, addressed Dear Citi, he pleaded for a longer-term plan with lower monthly payments. He described how my mothers mounting medical bills, as well as Chase Banks collection on our foreclosed home, had forced the family into bankruptcy, which provided no protection in the case of private student loans. We were not asking, in the end, for relief or forgiveness, but merely to pay them an amount we could still barely afford. This is an appeal to Citi asking you to work with us on this loan, he wrote to no one at all.
Finally, at the beginning of 2012, my father started writing to the office of Congressman Joseph Crowley, who represented the district in the Bronx where my parents had relocated. In one of these letters, he described watching Too Big to Fail, an HBO film about the financial crisis, which had come out several months earlier. (My parents lost every asset they had, but they still subscribed to HBO, which became more than TV for them a symbolic relic of their former class status.)
The recession was over, officially anyway, and people who had not suffered its agonies were already profiting from its memory. Recession films often took place in the gleaming offices of hedge funds and investment banks, with attractive celebrities offering sympathetic portrayals of economists and bankers Zachary Quinto, in 2011s Margin Call, for instance, plays a rocket scientist turned risk analyst with a heart of gold, a do-gooder who discovers that his employer has leveraged itself to the edge of bankruptcy. These films often depicted figures who experienced little to no repercussions for their roles in leading the country into a recession, who abused the misfortune of people like my parents unmentionables who owed more on their houses than what they had paid for them and, of course, rarely featured in the story at all.
My father described himself and my mother to Crowley as the poster children for this entire financial event, by which he meant Americans who seemed to have done everything right on paper, but in doing so contributed to their own downfall. By the time he wrote to Crowley, my father was working again, but it had taken him two years to find another job, which paid him much less money. After his run of financial calamity, he knew better than to believe anything good would last. We are in our 60s and I figure when we get to our mid-70s life will become difficult again, he wrote.
Crowleys office wrote back. It was the first time in about two years that a person had responded to our correspondence with encouragement, or something like it. Someone who worked for his office in Washington helped to arrange a conference call with government liaisons from Citigroup to discuss a different payment plan. The monthly payments to Citi were then more than $800 a month, and we were trying to talk them into letting us pay the loan over a longer period, at a rate of about $400 a month. These terms were reasonable enough, but the response to this request was like an automated message brought to life: We are precluded from a regulatory perspective from being able to do what you are asking, each of the representatives said. What made these exchanges more ridiculous was the fact that Citibank was in the process of retreating from the student loan market by selling off my debt to Discover Financial, who would give us the same response. We were nothing to these companies but a number in a database. And they fully controlled our fates.
I used to wonder if the people who worked for these lenders had families of their own, and if they would ever find themselves bankrupt, wondering where they were going to live. Most of all, I wondered what they would do if their own children had to take out loans to pay for college. After 10 years of living with the fallout of my own decisions about my education, I have come to think of my debt as like an alcoholic relative from whom I am estranged, but who shows up to ruin happy occasions. But when I first got out of school and the reality of how much money I owed finally struck me, the debt was more of a constant and explicit preoccupation, a matter of life and death.
I had studied English because I wanted to be a writer. I never had an expectation of becoming rich. I didnt care about money. My MA fed an intellectual curiosity that eventually led me to newspapers, and I dont regret that my translation of The Dream of the Rood from Old English to contemporary vernacular was not a terribly marketable or even applicable skill. I understand now the extent to which I was among the most overeducated group of young adults in human history. Still, following completion of this degree, I enrolled for an evening class in French at New Yorks Cooper Union, as that deferred my having to start paying off the debt, and the cost of the new class was cheaper than the monthly repayments I would have to make. Once I could no longer delay and the payments began, a question echoed through my head from the moment the day began, and often jolted me awake at night. I would look at the number on my paycheck and obsessively subtract my rent, the cost of a carton of eggs and a can of beans (my sustenance during the first lean year of this mess), and the price of a loan payment. The question was: What will you do when the money from the paycheck is gone?
I never arrived at an answer to this question. At my lowest points, I began fantasising about dying, not because I was suicidal, but because death would have meant relief from having to come up with an answer. My life, I felt, had been assigned a monetary value I knew what I was worth, and I couldnt afford it, so all the better to cash out early. The debt was mind-controlling how I would eat or pay my rent without defaulting was a constant refrain, and I had long since abandoned any hope of a future in which I might have a meaningful line of credit or a disposable income, or even simply own something but it was also mind-numbingly banal. I spent a great deal of time filling out paperwork over and over again, or waiting on hold for extended periods in order to speak to a robotic voice that would reject my request. It didnt matter what the request was or who I was asking. It was always rejected.
And so it felt good to think about dying, in the way that it felt good to take a long nap in order to not be conscious for a while. These thoughts culminated in November 2010, when I met with my father one afternoon at a diner in Brooklyn to retrieve more paperwork. My hope for some forgiving demise had resulted in my being viciously sick for about 10 days, with what turned out to be strep throat. I refused to go to the doctor in the hope that my condition might worsen into a more serious infection that, even if it didnt kill me, might force someone to at last lavish me with pity. I coughed up a not insignificant portion of yellowish fluid before my father and I entered the restaurant. We sat at a table, and I frowned at the forms he handed me. I started the conversation by asking, Theoretically, if I were to, say, kill myself, what would happen to the debt?