CLEVELAND — We are in the thick of graduation season. Last fall, nearly 50,000 Ohio high school graduates were starting their first year of college in our state. In 2020, almost 33,000 Ohio college students earned their diplomas, ready for the job market. But with graduations come realities of federal student loans, either taking them on or starting to pay them back. There is massive debt and calls for changes in the federal loan system.
“I went to school to go into med school to go into the field of cryonics,” said Brian Lee, Jr., 31, from Stow. “I’ve applied to hospitals, labs, pharmacies…I just can’t find anything out there and it’s a struggle.”
Lee's dream of becoming a doctor remains just that, a dream.
“(I have a) tremendous amount of debt that won’t go away and (I) can’t pay for it, can’t afford. It’s just wearing me down,” he said.
Lee graduated from Kent State University in 2015 with a biology degree. That was six years ago — six years of deferment on his loans.
“I have over $76,000 in debt,” he said.
Ohio woman owes over $500,000
If that isn’t bad enough, how about Cheryl Austin, 52, from Cincinnati?
“Like how did I even end up here?” questioned Austin. “People can never catch up. And it’s time to do something.”
Between her, her husband and their two adult children, she said their family owes more than half a million dollars in higher education debt.
“Do you think you’ll be able to pay all that money back?” we asked.
When asked if she thinks they'll be able to pay all that money back, Austin responded with an emphatic, "Oh, heck no!”
Calls for change — significant change
“This is a systemically vicious and predatory lending system,” said Alan Collinge, the Founder of StudentLoanJustice.org, an organization calling for drastic change in student loans. “Before the pandemic, about 80% — eight-zero — percent of all federal student loan borrowers were never going to repay their loan."
He told us his research shows in 2017, the amount of money people in Ohio owed in just federal student loans was nearly the same as the entire state’s government budget at that time, and a handful of other states were worse off than us.
“That’s money fleeing the state’s economy and going largely to the books of the Department of Education in Washington, D.C.,” said Collinge.
5 On Your Side Investigators researched federal student loan debt after graduation from 15 Ohio schools. The range of debt depends on the degree. On the low end of loans, Ohio University is the lowest on our list at $11,500. For Cleveland area schools, Akron University is the lowest with $12,650. On the higher end of loans, Baldwin Wallace tops our list at $36,100 followed by the University of Cincinnati with $31,200.
President Biden and federal student loans
“The best thing to do, I would say, take the lending system to the bath and drown it in the tub,” said Collinge. There are many people who agree with him. His petition asking for President Biden to wipe out all federal student loans has more than a million signatures from across the country.
President Biden campaigned on the idea of canceling $10,000 of federal student loan debt per person, and there’s even been recent talk this month about the possibility of $50,000 in debt forgiveness.
Government agencies silent
We contacted the U.S. Department of Education and asked for an interview with former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, who is now the CEO of Federal Student Aid. We were denied.
We asked the Ohio Department of Education and the Ohio Department of Higher Education. Again, no interviews about something that affects so many people.
According to a Department of Education statement, Americans owe more than $1.5 trillion in student debt as of Sept. 30th, 2020. A pause on payments took effect during the pandemic and is currently set to expire on Sept. 30, 2021. Before the pandemic, 87% of student loans were in some form of repayment status, with 13% considered delinquent.
Some might question — shouldn’t much of the blame fall back on the people who were lent the money in the first place? They knew their financial choices, right?
“The only option they gave me was student loans,” said Austin. “I didn’t know anything about scholarships or even how to apply for scholarships.”
“This is not a bad-borrower problem,” said Collinge. “This is a big government lending monstrosity.”
It's a monstrosity that Lee told us keeps him living at home with his parents, working a part-time job at a grocery store, and facing big federal payments.
“I was promised that if I worked hard, studied hard and went to school, the world would be my oyster,” Lee said.
5 On Your Side Investigators want to hear from you about your student loans, the problems you face, and what you think should be done about them. Email us: InvestigatorTips@WEWS.com.