By Erin Arvedlund and Bob Fernandez The Philadelphia Inquirer
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Four college graduates share their personal stories of wracking up debt to go to school and how they're getting out of it since entering the workforce.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
More than 40 million Americans hold $1.6 trillion in student debt. It's a source of constant conversation: how they took on debt, whether college or graduate school was worth the cost, and how they manage aspirations and families while also juggling punishing loan payments.
Here are the stories of some Pennsylvania and New Jersey residents who are paying off graduate school loans: an art student who self-published a book this year and is seeking a $100,000 grant for a dark film on student debt, a freshman legislator bringing attention to the issue in Harrisburg, a soon-to-be social worker, and a physical therapist paying off the cost of a doctorate degree and raising two young children.
'COLLEGE FISCAL SUICIDE' Joe Ovelman lived the dream of an art career in New York, renting rundown apartments and bartending. Greenwich Village and Chelsea galleries showed his photography, drawings, and video. "I had great critical success," the 48-year-old North Philadelphia resident said. "People would kill for a full-page color (New York) Times review." But "nobody was paying for it."
Tired of living hand-to-mouth and without health insurance, the West Chester native attended an open house at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design in 2007. As he remembers it, Penn officials told him that if he earned a master's of fine arts and gained teaching experience as an adjunct for two years, he would be hired as a faculty professor.
Penn's "financial aid office did everything," he said. "I just signed the paper. I had no income but someone gave me (a loan of) $100,000."
Graduating in 2010, Ovelman taught as an adjunct at Delaware County Community College. He ran a Chester County nonprofit that taught job skills to those leaving prison. But he struggled even making interest payments on the student loans.
A faculty job didn't materialize after two or three or four years. As his student debt climbed above $100,000, Ovelman contacted pro bono lawyers to see whether he could somehow reduce his debt. He believed that Penn "told me something that was not real", a professor job at the end of the graduate-school rainbow. The lawyers took an interest in the case but eventually dropped him as a client because their law firms counted the university as a client in other legal matters.
Ovelman defaulted on his loans. There didn't seem to be anything he could do, or so he thought.
Then two years ago, Ovelman struck up a conversation with a Temple University fine arts student at his graduate exhibition. As the talk quickly turned to the new graduate's debt of $32,000, Ovelman decided to do something creative about the student debt crisis.
He applied for a $100,000 grant to make a film from the nonprofit group Creative Capital in New York. His proposal, one of 4,000, has made it through the first round of reviews. He expects to hear by mid-October whether he made the second round. Creative Capital will select 40 winners for funding in 2020.
Using the screenplay that he submitted as part of his proposal, Ovelman self-published a book titled "You I See", a phrase that Ovelman describes as a recognition and self-validation of someone's struggle, in this case of student debt.
The drawing-filled book tells of a "student loan debt suicide challenge" to escape crushing loans. On the book's cover, Ovelman uses the acronym U.I.C. as an abbreviation, and, he hopes, eventual social media hashtag, for "University Industrialized Complex." The book is available on Amazon and at Giovanni's Room in Center City.
"It's cathartic," Ovelman said of the projects. "I think I was duped. I think everyone's being duped. I don't understand how we can do this to our culture." With a debt of $229,000 from the original $100,000 because of accrued unpaid interest and fees, he calls what's going on "college fiscal suicide."
STRUGGLING MIDDLE From knocking on thousands of doors in Springfield, Broomall, Morton Borough, and Radnor in a tight race in Pennsylvania's 165th District in 2018, Jennifer O'Mara learned one thing: Student debt "is an issue that families are talking about."
O'Mara, 29, a Democrat, squeezed out a victory in the Republican stronghold last November, winning by slightly more than 500 votes.
And once in Harrisburg, O'Mara networked. She spoke with Sean Crampsie, the director of government relations with the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties, which represents 5,000 professors and coaches.
Student debt is a big concern with his members because enrollment is declining with high tuition college costs, Crampsie told her. O'Mara spoke with younger members of the House who may have debt themselves or knew friends who did.
"No one seemed to be doing anything about student debt," O'Mara said. "So we decided why don't we do something with it?"
O'Mara formed the House Student Debt Caucus with Rep. Meghan Schroeder (R., Bucks). The big topics for the caucus: improving financial literacy for college students, costs, predatory lending, and regulating for-profit schools.
In June, Soledad O'Brien aired a TV segment on her "Matter of Fact" news show about student debt in Pennsylvania and interviewed O'Mara, who also had an op-ed published in The Inquirer and other Pennsylvania newspapers.
"I had people from all across Pennsylvania write to me. I don't think that Megan and I realized what a nerve we were hitting," O'Mara said.
Calls flooded her office.
"We hear a lot of grandparents calling and saying they are paying the loans on their grandkids because they were co-signers," O'Mara said.
O'Mara and the House Student Debt Caucus will hold a policy hearing on the issues at Cabrini College at 10 a.m., Oct. 16. The caucus also expects to plan a package of bills for 2020 later this fall. Top on its list: creating a student debt ombudsman who can look into concerns over predatory lending, educating students on debt and loans, and student-loan servicing issues.
House Democratic leaders also appointed O'Mara this summer to the new Higher Education Funding Commission to re-evaluate the formula that determines state funding for Temple, West Chester, Penn State, and other state-supported universities.
"The families struggling the most are in the middle," O'Mara said. "I would say I am on (the commission) because I made such a big stink about student debt."
And there is the irony to O'Mara's focus on student debt in Harrisburg. She graduated from West Chester University in December 2011, with $36,000 in debt and as a certified teacher in social studies with a history major. But she couldn't find a teaching job.
In early 2012, she went to work for the University of Pennsylvania in its fund-raising operations, which made her eligible for Public Student Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). Students in public-service jobs or those employed by nonprofit organizations can have federal loans wiped away if they make consistent monthly loan payments over a decade.
But the federal rules to qualify for PSLF are complex. And O'Mara learned after her election to the Pennsylvania House that she may not qualify as an elected lawmaker.
QUARTER OF HER PAYCHECK Judith Max Palmer finished undergrad work in 1998 with $12,000 in loans, and paid for college with "tons of need-based grants," scholarships, and work-study.
"My undergrad had a great endowment. My payment was $385 per quarter and I paid it off after I'd moved to Philly. I made minimum payments for all that time, and I borrowed a couple grand from my brother to just close it out," Palmer said.
The West Philadelphia political and criminal justice activist finished her first graduate degree in counseling in 2002 from Columbia University. Her debts totaled $40,000, with a minimum payment of $220 a month, and the debt payment grace period ended in 2003.