Student Loans: What Are Your Rights As a Borrower?
I’ve got not one, but two master’s degrees. Yep, that’s right. Not only did I spend extra time in the classroom and completing field internships, I’ve got the pieces of paper to prove it. And now, five years later, I’m still dealing with the massive mountain of federal student loans I took out to cover the costs of these degrees.
Don’t get me wrong, I love going to school. I consider myself a lifelong learner and revel in opportunities for formal and informal learning. At the time, it was really a catch-22: I could either leave with my bachelor’s degree and probably find a remedial job in my field, or I could get a master’s degree which would allow me the ability to attain licensure and get a “big kid” job in my field. The “need” for higher education continues to be a stressor for many. A study in 2014 even showed that one-third of U.S. college students would rather have started a business instead of even attending college.
The truth is, if I had known then I know now about student loans, I most likely wouldn’t have gone to graduate school.
At this point, my “what ifs” are moot points. I’ve done the classwork and the year-long, unpaid, 40 plus hour a week internship, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed, and am now working to chip away at the debt I created for myself.
This wasn’t an easy undertaking. I didn’t end up with a fabulous job right out of school. In fact, 2010 brought with it a series of years that boasted the lowest number of available social work jobs in the country. I had learn to advocate for myself with the “non-profit organization dedicated to helping make college a reality” that now holds my loans and “make[s] successful student loan repayment possible, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Education and private lenders.”
Self-advocacy around student loans can be a daunting task. While I knew from my exit survey upon graduation I had to repay my loans (and the pretty much tried to scare that into you), I didn’t know my rights or options as borrower.
Here are five basic rights you have as a borrower:
- You have the right to loan counseling. The National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) provides opportunities for counseling when you take out a loan and when you graduate. The NSLDS is also a great resource for any questions you might have regarding your loans and options.
- You have the right to an income-based repayment (IBR) plan. That first number they stick you with isn’t the be all, end all. An IBR plan allows you to pay back your loans based on what you’re making. This type of plan must be renewed every 12 months to remain valid.
- You have the right to a different payment schedule. How many years is it going to take you to pay off your loans? Did you decide on a 10 year plan when you first took them out? You can change your plan – some as long as 25 or 30 years – to help ease the burden of repayment.
- You have the right to consolidate your loans. I had heard about consolidation, but didn’t really know what it meant as an option, so I didn’t exercise this right as soon as I should have. By consolidating multiple federal loans into one monthly payment, you can also lower your monthly payments and have more time to repay. Check out the government’s FAQ on this.
- You have the right to deduct interest from your taxes. The IRS has determined that federal student loan interest payments can be deducted from your taxable income. Make sure you enter this information when filing your taxes each year.
On a final note, last month, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan released a blog post about the proposed Student Aid Bill of Rights and is asking for individuals to take the pledge. You can visit Secretary Duncan’s blog to join in this cause and find out what others are saying on social media by using the hashtag #CollegeOpportunity.