For the past week, I’ve been trying to craft a blog post about my experience in Washington DC. To be honest, I’m really struggling to come up with the words to describe the depth of the experience. The simple words are grateful, humbled and honored, but the depth of the experience is far more than that.
For starters, it was awe inspiring to simply be in the city, and walk through the buildings where so many decisions have been made, over the past 200+ years, that have shaped our nation, and even the world into who we are today. Walking down marble steps that have been worn into unevenness by the footfall of our nations leaders, and their dedicated staff, was a physical reminder of all of the people who have come before me and fought to create change in the world. The incredible history housed in the stunning architecture and breathtaking interiors was electrifying, simply amazing.
I really only had a few hours to explore the city, and I spent them walking. DC is a very walkable city. I had two major destinations; the American Indian Museum and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The American Indian museum was really helpful to me while I was designing my thesis project, which was a community center for Urban American Indians, so I wanted to support them and see their work as well. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was designed by a young Maya Lin (famous artist and designer), when she was still a student, so in addition to the power of the war memorial, the story of Maya Lin is inspiring as well. Architecturally, nothing is permitted to be taller than the Capitol building, so it’s a very short, squat city though nearly all of the buildings have been designed with great care. The cherry blossoms were in full bloom, which was an unexpected blessing. It was beautiful to see so many flowering trees throughout the city.
My visit to Washington DC wasn’t just to absorb the greatness of the capitol. I was given the tremendous honor of speaking at a hearing for the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington DC. The hearing was titled “The Looming Student Debt Crisis: Providing Fairness For Struggling Students”, and was presided by Senator Dick Durbin, the Democrat Senator from Illinois. The topic of the hearing was changing the bankruptcy laws to allow private student loans to be dischargeable in bankruptcy. In 2005, the bankruptcy law was changed so that private student loans cannot be discharged, but prior to 2005, they could be. I got involved in the hearing by writing a letter to the senator, through his official website, regarding my specific student debt burden. It was hugely humbling to represent all of my friends and the other countless students who are in the same situation I’m in with my student debt.
Here is the link to the senate video archive if you want to watch the hearing in its entirety. I do recommend it, whether you are familiar with the issue of student debt or not, you will certainly learn something through listening to the various witnesses and the statements of the small handful of senators who attended as well. If you don’t want to watch the video, I know it’s a little bit long, you can read my testimony here. I don’t want to wax on for too long, and I don’t want to waste my time and yours filling the web with my long-winded opinions about the issue, so I’ll just summarize it briefly and tell you why it’s an important issue to me.
There were six total witnesses at the hearing. Four were in full support of the proposed change in bankruptcy legislation, and two were opposed. Two of the witnesses are Attorney Generals, for IL and KY. They mainly discussed for-profit education, and their concerns over potential fraud and detailed some of their personal investigations. I gave my personal story about struggling with $98,000 in student loans, followed by the two opposing witnesses. The first, a professor of bankruptcy law, does not support the legislation because he believes that allowing bankruptcy will result in higher costs for students, and fewer loans offered. The second opposing witness stated that the rising cost of college is directly tied to Federal student aid, and it’s his opinion that if the Federal Government were to stop providing financial aid to students, the cost of a college degree would not be so expensive. The final witness is an advocate for people who are struggling with debt. Essentially, she talked about her work, and how the heavy load of student loans is trapping people in poverty.
If you read my testimony or watched the video, you know why this is an important issue for me. If not, let me break it down for you. I have $98,000 in student debt for a degree in interior design. Make no mistake, I am passionate about design, I love what I do, and I am forever grateful for the people I met and the experiences I had while in school. If I had it all to do again, I would have still chosen to attend design school, probably still at the school I graduated from, but I would have done things a little differently. I would have slowed down, instead of taking 18 credits a semester, I would have gone part time, and worked and paid for as much of my education up front as possible. I would not have funded the entire thing through student loans. I would have known what questions to ask, and not blindly trusted the staff at the school to do right by me and the other students.
I have 16 separate loans with interest rates varying from a little more than 3% on the Federal loans, up to 11.25% on the private loans. All but two of my loans have variable interest rates. That means that if the Fed raises interest rates, then the rates on my loans goes up, and so does my monthly payment. I cannot consolidate my loans. I cannot request lower interest rates. I cannot request fixed interest rates. I cannot negotiate with my lender to lower my monthly payment any more than it already is. I cannot stop paying my loans or I face wage garnishment, aggressive debt collections, and more fees and higher interest rates piled on top of what is already an enormous debt. I am totally powerless in the situation and there is nothing I can do to alleviate the pressure.
If bankruptcy is once again allowable in bankruptcy, will I file? Truthfully, maybe, but probably not. Allowing private student loans to be discharged in bankruptcy returns some of the power to the borrower. If the lenders know that they risk losing the entire loan, they will have huge incentives to work with us. Bankruptcy is a powerful tool to negotiate lower interest rates, fixed interest rates, and flexible payment plans. Really, that’s all I want. I want a chance to actually make some headway into my debt, I do not want to admit defeat. I want to actually have some power over my financial future, instead of being what feels like an indentured servitude for the next 25 years.
The remarkable thing about my situation is that it’s identical to countless others, and all this debt, more than $1 trillion, is depressing our economy in huge ways. Financial analysts are predicting that student debt is the next bubble, and that it will have major economic repercussions. Google it, or feel free to message me if you want any more specifics.
Here are a couple of my favorite images from my trip. I didn’t get nearly as many as I wanted, I need a better camera…
The Capitol Building
Interior of the American Indian Museum