Payback marches players through a series of decisions, from which school to attend to when and how to accept paid work to whether to join and pay for a fraternity or sorority.
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In an ideal educational world, experiential games like this would be core elements of a financial literacy master class that every high school student would take. Ranzetta learned all about the system as a teenager. The fifth of six children, he was so determined to get to college that he was already budgeting for it as a high school student. I reproduced his handwritten budget, which he still has, in a column.
After successful stints in the paper-shredding and executive compensation industries, Mr. Ranzetta turned to student loan consulting when his older siblings started sending their own children to college and threw up their hands in confusion and despair when trying to borrow to pay for it.
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His phone number was on his company website, and every time a tearful call came in, he asked what might have kept the problems from happening in the first place. Payback, and the financial literacy work Mr. Once he persuaded McKinney to help him, he began working with Jenny Nicholson , one of the creators of Spent. Her work on that project was informed by her own childhood, part of which she spent in Tennessee without running water or electricity. When she entered the University of California, San Diego, she was the first person in her family to go to college. Nobody told her that when the student loan check lands, it can lead to false feelings of being flush with cash, given that a chunk of the money may be needed for months of living expenses.
She avoided the temptation to spend it all, quickly paid back her loans and entered the social work field before landing in advertising. After the success of Spent, McKinney received lots of proposals from potential clients wanting them to recreate it for some other area of decision-making. Payback, however, is the first project the firm has accepted like this. A big part of the reason, Ms. Nicholson said, is that the firm recognized that paying for college is not just about debt but also about investment.
Every decision — from where you attend to what jobs and activities and classes and majors you choose while you are there — is about trade-offs. How much paid work is enough? How much socializing and spending on fun?
And so the game asks players to consider graduation gifts of cash, laptop purchases, meal plans, dorm supplies, books, hours of paid work, the Greek system, vacations and more. All the while, you see a running total of your debt. You might not be in a student loan forgiveness program — and, as such, might think that the problems plaguing the thousands who are struggling with their debt have nothing to do with you. The experience of student debt is isolating, lonely, and often dismissed as the result of individual choices — but its ramifications span generations and demographics.
Because the only way to actually fix a problem of this magnitude is to really, clearly, see it: what created it, what continues to fuel it, and who profits from it. We inherited and internalized the old ones. But the cost of those ideas has risen exponentially in the past few decades.
But there was no such thing as a federally backed student loan.
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In , the Truman Commission issued a sprawling report on the state of American higher education, which recommended, among other things, doubling the number of students who attended college by Central to increasing college attendance would be providing government assistance, whether in the form of loans or grants, to make enrollment a reality. The ideas that the report essentially took as self-evident — that schooling will not only better society, but make it more democratic and equitable, more fundamentally American — were central to what economist W.
For society to arrive at the consensus that college was necessary and worthwhile, it had to become far more accessible than it had been during the first half of the 20th century.
And for many, the government-funded GI Bill, passed in , provided the first major step toward accessibility. He exited the military without debt. Thirty years later, my mother started undergrad at a private liberal arts college in Minnesota, where her tuition was covered through the combination of a National Merit Scholarship and a work-study program. My father paid for the same college through a combination of grants, work-study, and a small federal loan. It was, some economists argue, one of the best investments the US government ever made.
Congress also passed legislation to fund Perkins Loans directed toward low-income students , Stafford Loans government-backed student loans , and the creation of the Pell Grant. Funding from state governments helped tuition stay low; funding from the federal government helped students cover those costs.
He then paid for the state tuition costs of all eight of his children — allowing each of them to graduate debt-free. More students were graduating from high school than ever before — and, having internalized the education gospel, were eager to continue on to college. At the same time, funding for state universities began to decrease substantially as politicians, elected on the promise of slashing government spending, cut state budgets. College costs, both public and private, began to rise; companies that had once paid for on-the-job training — essentially credentialing workers in their fields — began asking applicants to find training themselves, generally through some sort of college.
The cost of education shifted from a societal investment — spread across the tax-paying public, in the name of a thriving society and economy — to an individual one. And no matter how astronomically priced that investment became, we continued to rationalize it as a worthwhile one. Even in a culture that idolizes high-profile college dropouts Bill Gates, Steve Jobs , to refuse higher education in America has become tantamount to refusing to fulfill your potential. And if you refuse to fulfill your potential, any struggle can and will be blamed on you alone.
The university was under federal investigation at the time for possible deceptive or unfair business practices.
Some students, often with the help of their families, are able to cover the costs of that diploma. Between and , enrollment at for-profit colleges more than doubled, to 2. Many of the degrees offered by these for-profit colleges sound similar to those offered by community colleges or state institutions — but the acceptance rates are much higher, the recruitment practices are more predatory, and the resultant debt load is far, far higher.
And the subsequent, ever-expanding wave of high school graduates — many from working-class, rural, Latino, and black families — were eager to buy it too. However, they didn't know anything about what the economic landscape would be like now. Like so many others I spoke to for this piece, Danielle knew about the potential risks of taking out loans. Not only do I do that, I'm given the burden of subsidizing people who don't pay off loans. Spare me the pity party. When it comes to other, nonmilitarized quadrants of American society, though, something shifts — even when the student goes on to work directly for the government.
Public service within the military-industrial complex is still widely gendered and conceived of as masculine, good, and — most important — valuable. By contrast, public service outside of the military in schools, in public health, in legal defense, in nonprofits is conceived of as feminine, and less valuable. And that idea extends all the way to the Department of Education — the entity charged with facilitating the disbursement and payment of student loans — which has moved to roll back myriad protections for student borrowers and eliminate PSLF entirely.
Brooks, a professor at Georgetown Law specializing in student loans, told me. It conceives of the borrower not as the bearer of the future of the country, but a customer, and a petulant one at that.
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It also conceives of education as a transaction, in which recipients must pay back every cent, plus interest, in order to make good on the investment that has been made in them. That understanding is mirrored in every corner of the repayment process — and nowhere more so than the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.
The first income-based loan repayment plan was implemented in the s — an early acknowledgment of skyrocketing loan amounts. PSLF is a bolder version of those original repayment plans, and when it was first conceived, its guidelines were straightforward: To obtain forgiveness, you must have the right kind of loan a public one, as in, owed to the federal government ; the right kind of repayment plan income-based ; the right number of qualifying months ; and the right employer one that provides public service.
But it never provided a manual , and the servicer — which, like every other loan servicer, is a publicly held, profit-driven enterprise — has little incentive to facilitate completion of the program. When a borrower is granted forgiveness, after all, that loan and the fees generated by it disappears. When I finished my PhD in , I began repaying my student loans on an income-based repayment plan.
In a phone call shortly after, I asked my loan servicer, Navient, about Public Service Loan Forgiveness, and was assured that if I was working in public service as a teacher, I would simply need to make consecutive payments for 10 years, at which point I would apply and receive forgiveness for the remainder of my balance. That advice was wrong — and if I had followed it for the next 10 years and applied to the program, I would likely have been told that none of my payments qualified, and I would need to start over again.
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The biggest issue with my loans was one faced by hundreds of thousands of other borrowers who believe they are enrolled in PSLF: I was with the wrong servicer. But many servicers — including Navient — may be reticent to guide clients toward this option, because if a loan is transferred to FedLoan, they lose their servicing fees.
In a recent lawsuit funded by the American Federation of Teachers, a group of nine teachers accused Navient of negligence in administering their student loans. According to AFT counsel Lena Konanova, Navient has admitted ignorance about the actual operation of its call centers, where, according to previous reporting by BuzzFeed News , employees were instructed to keep calls between three and seven minutes, or shorter.
And getting a bad performance review because you took too much time with them? An employee of a US executive branch agency was told that her employer was not part of the US government. I usually end up in tears after the call. If, for whatever reason, you cannot make a payment for one month, your loan will then go into forbearance.
For many borrowers, though, it can take up to a year of waiting time before the servicer completes the paperwork to transfer you out of forbearance and back to your original payment plan — which means losing time, and payments, that could have been spent working toward forgiveness. Those who have found themselves on track toward PSLF have only done so with considerable research acumen or outside guidance.
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Misti, who figured out how to navigate PSLF for her husband, said she was only able to do so because of her training as a librarian. Another borrower told me she realized her payments were ineligible only after a chance meeting with Heather Jarvis , a student loan rights attorney whom various public service employers pay to educate them on how to help their employees obtain assistance. These customer service agents are not experts in the labyrinthine, bureaucratic processes that guide the company that employs them. You have to be your own relentless advocate. These mistakes on the part of Navient and FedLoan are not minor inconveniences.
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The only way to move forward is to keep them accountable. In the past, borrowers could file complaints against servicers with the Consumer Federal Protection Bureau, or CFPB, which was established after the financial crisis in In , the CFPB issued a report summarizing the overarching problems with the PSLF, consolidating the complaints individual borrowers had voiced for years: Job certification is a nightmare, applications are often grossly mishandled, and inaccurate information about the program leads to months and years of loan payments beyond the officially required, costing borrowers thousands of dollars.
The report should have prompted immediate action to crack down on the industry.