Living a debt-free life, free of dark financial clouds dictating every move and decision is a dream I will likely never realize. I currently owe $258,000 in student loans. I am not a physician or a lawyer, or someone who notoriously earns a high income given their years of sacrifice in higher education. I do not make anywhere near six figures per year despite belonging to an “elite” group of the 1.5 percent of Americans who have earned a professional degree that requires study beyond a four-year bachelor’s course. I attended seven years of higher education in order to become an occupational therapist (OT). I borrowed $160,000 for my education and have paid back $100,000—yet my current debt totals $258,000. I am drowning in the consequences of the choice I made as a 21 year-old, which in my not-fully-formed-yet-brain was simply to help people. Becoming an OT has, quite literally, bankrupted me. How did this happen? I fell privy to a vicious cycle occurring in our country that many poor souls are succumbing to. I graduated from college owing $20,000, which was considered a steal compared to the $120,000 it cost. I was fortunate to receive several scholarships and grants. I then scored a job earning $7.50/hour (this was 2006) with a Bachelor of Arts in Exercise Science. I was constantly sexually harassed by my male coworkers and supervisors, so when the opportunity to attend graduate school arose—and earn $50,000/year after graduation!—I jumped at the chance to escape. This salary seemed like a fortune compared to the minimum wage position I was in. I hoped to contribute to society, leave an oppressive environment, and assumed the debt would be worth it. No one made me think twice regarding the logistics.
Like many young Americans, I grew up in a culture that expects education. I was privileged to possess the mentality that the question wasn’t if I would go to college, it was where I would go to college. My lower middle class parents encouraged me to complete as much education as possible in order to live a better life. They thought more education would help my chances to surpass their socioeconomic status. I was told in order to receive said education loans are worth the investment. I was told the finances would eventually be recouped. You will live a better life with more education. You will be happy. You will be successful. I was told that student loan debt is “good” debt to have and would amount to a very low, manageable monthly payment. The debate regarding good vs. bad debt continues to make me laugh, as if mortgage lenders actually care what your debt is for! (They don’t.) No one ever actually told me what this payment looked like. The societal assumptions turned out to be horribly inaccurate. No one accounted for the 2008 financial crisis, which occurred immediately after I started graduate school and made interest rates increase. Additionally, this is when the nationwide phenomenon of credential inflation grew rampant, which requires higher degrees than are needed to perform a job. Is three years to complete a Masters degree truly necessary? Have you noticed all of the new doctorates out there? It is now a requirement (or will be soon) to enter certain fields, such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and pharmacy. I am suffering with unimaginable student loan debt and a very low paying job due to this perfect storm comprised of timing, societal mentality, horrible advice, and college-aged naiveté.
Few people actually know what an OT does. Let me tell you! OTs treat people throughout the lifespan in areas of mental health, physical dysfunction, and community health. We treat the whole person rather than reducing them into a single injury. OTs are trained in both physical and psychosocial dysfunction, unlike other providers. We believe in the basics of human necessity by emphasizing self-care, life balance and routines, and functional participation in meaningful activities. OTs place a high reverence on the potential of our patients and attempt to empower them through education and by increasing their independence. We value the roles people identify with—employee, student, parent, athlete, child, etc. As a currently practicing OT, my clinical specialty is in seating and mobility. I provide complex wheelchairs to people who are unable to walk and may not be able to talk. I work with people who have the most debilitating diagnoses, such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, and muscular dystrophy. I also volunteer my time as the coach for a swim team for people with physical disabilities. OTs are vital members of the healthcare team, yet poor reimbursement and therapy caps create a very low return on our educational investment. OT is a very broad and fulfilling career choice, yet many unethical and negligent practices occurred when I went to school such as unnecessarily lengthening out the (Masters) program to three years, requiring full tuition outside of the didactic portion of our education, and encouraging students to take out loans for living expenses rather than working. How convenient to tell students to borrow money when the school then benefits twice: once from tuition and second from investments with student loan lenders, a $1.6 billion profit to share.
After graduation I promptly pursued employment. I was so excited to work in healthcare and help people gain independence! I consolidated many of my loans, prioritized my payments, and began paying them. I have utilized the unemployment deferment during periods of transition. These periods included moving across the country while seeking employment, caring for my father as he fought (and lost) lung cancer, after I became a mother and learned the awful truth about childcare costs, and when I experienced thyroid cancer myself. I got on a payment plan, did my best to pay, and assumed I was making a dent in the astronomical number. Since I graduated, I have paid $100,000 towards my student loans. This was difficult as I started out making $54,000/year as a full-time OT working at a non-profit children’s hospital. Interestingly, this was not much more than the amount of loans I took out the year before to attend school. Something wasn’t adding up. How was I supposed to pay for my education without a salary to support this? I started on the Income Based Repayment plan and learned this does not even cover the interest I accrue each month. Nine years later after making six figures in payments, my student loan balance has increased! I am living inside a hamster wheel.
At this rate, I will die before paying them off completely and will pay an additional $400,000 from what I actually borrowed. This is $400,000 that I cannot write-off in taxes due to an illogical income cap, which punishes those who attend many years of school. This is $400,000 that could go towards my daughters’ college tuition, retirement, and into the economy. These debts will become an intergenerational transmission of debt just perpetuating the cycle. I have sought help from numerous sources. I have applied for private consolidation loans at a lower interest rate yet do not qualify due to my debt-to-income ratio. I have reduced monthly payments. However, then the total debt increases at an alarming rate, which is where I now find myself: paying the equivalent to our mortgage in student loans and watching the total number increase each month. I recently visited with an accountant who said my only options are bankruptcy or death. I later learned that filing for bankruptcy likely could not apply to student loans. I have no credit card debt or other outstanding loans. I find it illogical that if this debt were on credit cards I could file bankruptcy, yet because I went to school I am ineligible for the fresh start others enjoy who go on to do great and wonderful things for society. What does this say about our society when celebrities or large corporations can file bankruptcy after earning millions of dollars yet healthcare providers, teachers, and researchers cannot? The very people who work tirelessly to make our world a better place are suffering immensely.
I hope to spread awareness to lawmakers regarding the real-life implications of the interest rates they choose and their decision to not allow bankruptcy on student loans. What does this debt do to a middle class family who, aside from winning the lottery, will never be able to pay this off? It is causing an undue burden on my family. It is impacting me more than just in financial harm, as in the mere ability to purchase things. It is a heavy weight on my shoulders and has been for a decade. The stress of this weight has caused physical ailments, marital stress, and decreased the quality of life for my family. I am suffering from anxiety, depression, and chronic headaches at the magnitude of this debt. It takes the joy out of work as I work to only pay off my loans. It makes me resentful of the career I was once so passionate about. What would you choose when leaving your 1 and 3 year-old daughters each day? Burnout is currently sweeping over healthcare and I believe student loan debt is likely a contributing culprit. We are taking weekend per diem jobs on top of our weekday jobs just to survive and perhaps enjoy a little bit of life: take a vacation, buy a nice purse, or sign a child up for ballet class. This is the dream we worked so hard for.
The number of people in this situation with me will continue to rise as educational costs and degree requirements increase as well. In my current research, I am spiraling in numerous directions regarding the long-term effects of this debt including numerous negative impacts on health and wellness. The effects of debt can include stress, anxiety, depression, increased blood pressure, substance abuse, and insomnia. Again, I am not alone. What will our country look like when the majority of healthcare providers—who are supposed to be the healthiest among us—are weighed down by this burden?
The student loan crisis and subsequent situation I am in has raided my core. We have to establish an ethical means of educational costs for future healthcare practitioners. There are many forgiveness programs and scholarships available to primary care practitioners, yet few for therapists and the stringent requirements to participate are alienating. I hope to participate in educational reform to put a cap on the tuition universities are able to charge in relation to the expected income of that profession, research the effects of credential inflation on our education and healthcare systems, examine the ethics behind universities encouraging students to take out loans for living expenses (this seems a conflict of interest to me), and restructure universities’ ability to charge full tuition while students are out on clinical rotations. Students need real financial aid counselors who sit them down, show them their numbers each semester, and explain what this will look like in real life. The graphics on the very confusing paperwork do not properly exemplify the true burden of this debt. Financial aid counselors need to discuss budgeting when sending refund checks for a year’s worth of living expenses. Perhaps then our country would not be on the brink of another bubble bursting due to this widespread student loan crisis.
If you’re in the same situation as me, please help! Encourage your congressional representatives to lower student loan interest rates and create more achievable plans for loan forgiveness. Our health, well being, and future generations’ livelihood is at stake.