Sallie Mae and Me, part two

*Continued from an earlier post, “Running Down the Devil, or Sallie Mae and Me”

In a New York Times opinion piece entitled “Why I Defaulted on My Student Loans,” published last June, writer Lee Siegel made the following assertion:

It struck me as absurd that one could amass crippling debt as a result, not of drug addiction or reckless borrowing and spending, but of going to college. Having opened a new life to me beyond my modest origins, the education system was now going to call in its chits and prevent me from pursuing that new life, simply because I had the misfortune of coming from modest origins.

Siegel’s situation, and sentiments, are similar to mine. When I was young, my parents were hard-working people who had not gone to college themselves. Through their diligent work ethic and frugal life choices, they were able to send me first to a private school then to college. (The teaching certificate and master’s degree were my choices later.) My parents’ constant admonitions to me were: work hard, make the most of opportunities, and do better for yourself. Those lessons, which I applied, led me to the situation I described in part one. I saw a good opportunity, albeit one I had to work for, and I took the long-haul view that my upbringing and my education gave me: the rewards will come . . . later.

Yet Siegel and I differ, too. Siegel wrote about defaulting on student loans– and the havoc that follows. Right now, I have no such intentions. My concerns are similar though: how and why this student-loan “arrangement is legal, but not moral.” Yet, while I believe firmly that Sallie Mae/Navient is messing me over, I don’t believe that defaulting on money that I applied for, accepted and spent willingly would be right either. I haven’t yet paid off the principle of what I borrowed, and I recognize my obligation to pay at least that.

I have one other objection to this notion that defaulting is OK. One reason that people like me end up paying back double our original loan amount is: we are paying our own loans and the loans of those who default, too. When someone defaults, do we really think that a corporation like Sallie Mae/Navient is going to look at a financial loss and say, Oh well . . . I guess that one didn’t work out. No, they’re going to find another way to recoup it— from people like me. So, where I concur with Lee Siegel about the predicament, I disagree about the solution.

On my new quest for— should I call it justice? . . . the first thing I did was to write to Sallie Mae/Navient and ask for information my original loan amounts and my first payment date. I wanted to be sure of how much money I had accepted and when I actually started paying it back, before I started mouthing off, declaring and decrying— and then realizing I was wrong.

Sallie Mae/Navient responded to my request quickly, within a few days, and I’ll be honest that the loan amounts were more than I remembered. I thought I would be much closer to paying off the real principle than I am. All my little $204 payments for more than six years have not added up to half of what I borrowed, but what’s sadder than that is: only half of what I’ve sent has gone to reduce the principle balance; the rest has gone to interest.

The next step, if I am ever going to make this right, was to research options to get my loans reduced or “forgiven.”


As a public school teacher, the best option that I’ve seen so far was the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program, which allows for “forgiveness” of up to $17,500 in student loans. If I were to get it, that maximum amount would cut my loan balance by more than half, effectively reducing my accrued interest at the same time, which might get me closer to paying back what I actually borrowed.

I looked over the criteria, using the information I got from Sallie Mae/Navient, and I almost qualified for the program. I have no outstanding balances; I’m not in default; my loans were not made before the end of five years teaching; I’ve never taught for AmeriCorps; and I’ve been teaching for at least five consecutive years. I’m eligible in every way but one: the school system in which I teach is qualified for Title I, but the school where I teach is not on their Annual Directory of Designated Low-Income Schools for Teacher Cancellation Benefits.

Sigh . . .

The information says that, to be on that list, a school has to have 30% of its students eligible for Title I funding. So, unwilling to give up yet, being that close, I decided to try to find out more.

No matter what, I knew that I wouldn’t ever get that maximum $17,500. The program will cancel 15% of the loans from the first and second years of service, 20% from the third and fourth years, and 30% from the fifth year. Even if they cancelled the most money possible, for me those percentages wouldn’t amount to $17,500. The good news would be: the program allows for cancellation not only of principle but of accrued interest, too.

Since the program appeared on the FAFSA website, common sense told me to call them first.

The discussions with the FAFSA people did not go well. When I called the help line for FAFSA, I was told by an automated message that I needed an FSA ID. I had never heard of such a thing, so I hung up and went back to the FAFSA website to find out what that is. Apparently, I either don’t have one or lost it years ago, so I needed to set one up. When I typed in the first information that the set-up requested, that brought up my old address, where I lived when I had gotten the loans. So they know me, I thought. Not so fast. As I completed the requested information, including four separate security questions, I checked the little box that I did agree to the terms-and-conditions, and clicked “Submit.” Instead of receiving an FSA ID, I was re-routed to the log-in home page where a red error message appeared: the website had a problem processing my request.

I started over, did the whole set-up process over again— and got the same result.

I was starting to get aggravated, which is usually a bad time to dial a 1-800 customer service line, but I did that anyway. When the recording told me again about the FSA ID that I was not able to set up, I leaned into my phone, which was on speaker, and said, “Customer Service” as loudly and audibly as I could. “One moment, please,” it replied.

The young man at FAFSA customer service was about as helpful as the FSA ID website. I told him that I wanted to know more about the Teacher Loan Forgiveness program, and he asked what my specific question was. (Instead of answering me, he wanted more information about my request for more information.) I explained that my school isn’t on the eligible list, and I wanted to ask someone why, or what it might take to get my school on the list. The young man said that FAFSA doesn’t make those lists; the lists are provided to them.

“By who?” I asked

“The federal government,” he replied.

I explained pointedly that I wasn’t able to hang up with him and call “the federal government.” I needed to know who to call to ask that question. He put me on hold.

Only Title I schools are on that list, the young man said when he came back, and if I wanted to know more about the list, then I needed to call whoever handles my student loans. I told him, I thought I was talking to the people who handled my student loans. No, he said, then asked, Who do you send your payments to? The next exchange went something like this:

“Sallie Mae/Navient.”

His response was, “Yeah, whichever one of those handles your loans.”

“They’re the same company. They changed their name.”

“Oh,” he said.

I decided not to spend any more time with the young man at FAFSA. Despite the Teacher Loan Forgiveness program being listed on their website, their own customer service guy didn’t answer my questions, then directed me to someone else who couldn’t either: Sallie Mae/Navient.

I imagined calling sweet Sallie Mae and saying to her, Excuse me, Sallie Mae, will you help me cancel out some of the tens of thousands of dollars that I owe you? And I was sure she’d say, Of course I will, sweetheart.

But that’s not how the conversation went. The corporate mouthpiece at Sallie Mae/Navient said lots of things that I knew were coming but still dreaded hearing, namely when I asked about loan forgiveness programs, he said, “No, those loans are going to need to be paid off.” That got my Irish up!

Our conversation didn’t go well after that. He interrupted me a lot, and I got angrier with every self-righteous statement that he made. He suggested that I make a “lump-sum” payment every once in a while, to get my principle down, and I asked him if he has any spare money laying around, because I don’t.

However aggravating he was, Sallie Mae/Navient’s guy did give me three things I could use: one little shred of hope, and one fact that I am a little frightened about, and he also told me to call the Department of Education about the eligible school list, which is more than FAFSA’s guy could do.

The hopeful nugget was: according to him, my current $204 payments will pay off my loans in about eighteen years. (That beats the 200+ years that I estimated.) I don’t know what kind of funny math he’s using – maybe it’s Common Core math – but I like it. Granted, I’ll be nearly sixty in eighteen years, but it’s nice to hear that my wife won’t be paying off my loans with my life insurance. However, eighteen years of $204 payments means that I’ll still be sending them another $44,000. Personally, I’d rather use that money for other things.

The thing that scared me was: of my five separate loans, the three with lower rates are variable-rate loans. He really got under skin when I asked, “Variable, what does that mean?” and he started to define the word variable for me. No, no, no . . . what do you mean by variable? According to yet another cubicle-dweller who knows he is being recorded by his employer, “the government” changes those rates every August— could go up, could go down – according to “the economy.”

Lord, help me! My student loan interest rate is dependent upon “the government” and its ideas about “the economy.” August just passed, so I need to keep an eye on my rates. All it’ll take is some constipated bureaucrat with an itchy trigger finger and I’ll be paying even more interest.

I may be no closer to having my student loan balance reduced, but I do know a little more than when I started calling around. I already suspected but know now that I will never, ever, ever be eligible for the Teacher Loan Forgiveness program, because I can’t go back in time and retroactively get my school a Title I label for the years I’d need it to be. As far as I can tell, I’m qualified for the program in every other way.

In my efforts to make some sense out of my student-loan predicament, I haven’t gotten far. I have been rebuffed by the empty rhetoric of the lowest-level pawns at FAFSA and Sallie Mae/Navient. But I’m a hard-headed SOB, and I won’t quit that easily. I could call the Department of Education about my school’s Title I status, but that’s not going to change. May I’ll call Lee Siegel and see how that default thing is going.

Nah, let’s see what else is going on . . .

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