The Faces of Student Loan Debt
Tagged in:
Tap to Read Full Story

Jesse CowellJesse Cowell

Age: 43
Occupation: Freelance writer and director
Where: New York, N.Y.
Owes: $250,000

How did you rack up such a hefty student loan balance?

I got two degrees: one was from SUNY, the State University of New York in Albany, where I accumulated $17,000 in loans, and the other was from film school at the University of Southern California. I left USC in 1999, owing both private loans and $90,000 in public, government subsidized and unsubsidized loans.

While I focused on paying off the private loans (the balance is about $2,000 now), I couldn’t afford to pay the much larger public loans so I fell behind on payments, racking up fees and penalties.

Eventually, I consolidated the public loans—combining multiple federal education loans into one loan—in 2007.

I made a few payments over the years and tried to consistently repay this loan in 2010, but the income-sensitive payment of $1,800 was too expensive along with my other monthly expenses, so I have primarily deferred the loan.

As a result, the interest on the loan, which is 8 percent fixed, grows by about $10,000 a year and the current balance is $250,000. Once the private loans are paid in full, I will tackle the public loans.

Were you concerned about your ability to pay back your debt after school?

I’ve always been concerned about paying off the larger loan. It’s difficult to pay back a $90,000 loan, but not impossible if you can secure immediate, well-paid employment. But if you can’t attack it right away, the interest accrues, and the loans grow out of control.

Were you able to find a job in your field after graduation?

Everyone said I was going to be the next Spielberg, and I sent out 150 resumes on the best VHS tape I could buy. Nobody responded.

How did this impact your ability to repay the loans?

I ended up working in L.A. for three years at a dotcom and a production company, but didn’t earn enough to make the loan payments at the time—$700 to $800 a month. The student loan servicers harassed me endlessly.

Were you ever able to catch up?

The companies I worked for in L.A. closed, and I moved back to New York in 2002 to try my luck as a filmmaker. I found work at two startups, where I made enough to pay for the private loans—ultimately paying over $30,000 over the past 15 years. I focused on the loans I’d cosigned with family members because I don’t want others to be responsible for my debt.

Every loan I have is now in good standing, and I’m currently paying $1,600 a month. I’d like to save for the future, but when you owe this kind of money, there’s no such thing as savings or retirement income.

Why did you decide to make a comedy about your student loan experience?

My goal in making the film “I.O.U.” is to shed light on the student loan industry. It’s horrific, but I figure the best way to deal is to make people laugh and start the conversation.

There’s a lot of social responsibility in the film, too. I’m not one of these people who just blames. I played some part in this, so there is a moment where I have to take a look in the mirror and say, “Okay, I’m part of this—it’s not just The Man out to get me.”

But when you have 8 percent interest on a student [loan] in a country that prides itself on having an educated population, really what you’re doing is creating a workforce of people who owe.

Brandon MontgomeryBrandon Montgomery

Age: 23
Occupation: Full-time college student
Where: Hackensack, N.J.
Owes: $14,000

Where do you go to school?

I’m a junior at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J. I transferred here after three semesters at Bergen Community College in Paramus, N.J.

Why did you decide to attend community college first?

I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, and didn’t want to pay 10 times the tuition at a four-year institution without first being sure.

Now I’m pursuing my degree in sports management, finishing up in spring 2017. I’d eventually like to go into the business side of sports as an athletic director, but I’m also interested in scouting, marketing and PR for high schools and colleges.

Do you currently have student debt?

I owe about $14,000, but it will be closer to $70,000 when I graduate. I just started taking out student loans last fall. (My financial aid package at Bergen Community College was enough to cover the full tuition.)

Owing such a large amount could have been prevented with scholarships. I didn’t apply for them initially because of my high school grades, but I am doing well now and looking into some.

Have you considered paying down your loans before graduation?

If I had extra money, I would. Now I work about 22 hours a week at a grocery store and an events company, which covers my basic living expenses.

But I did receive an $1,800 refund from my student loan servicer this year and put it straight into a savings account. That way, I’ll have some money on hand to pay back my loans later.

Once you’re working full-time, how long do you think it’ll take to pay off your debt?

If I get an entry-level job—say, as a sales person in the ticket office of a Division I collegiate athletic program, making $30,000—and live at home, it might take five years to pay everything off. Otherwise, it would probably take 10.

Any advice for current college students?

Try your best to secure as many grants, scholarships, funding and financial aid as possible because it makes life a lot easier.

March 29, 2016

<< Page 2 of 5 >>