I discovered something tonight that I did not know. There are 20 states in which, if you default on your student loan payments, the state can and will suspend your professional and/or drivers’ licenses until you catch up the payments.
Now, think about this one. You owe a huge student loan, for college is anything but cheap, and scholarships not easy to come by. But, you value education, want to be able to provide well for your family, so you go to college for 4 years, 6 years, or more, and you come out a teacher, nurse, lawyer or accountant. You get a job, you’re doing well enough, though salaries are not keeping up with inflation, so you haven’t as much of a cushion as you’d like. And then BOOM … something happens. Perhaps you lose your job, or perhaps you become ill and are temporarily unable to work. The first priorities? Food and shelter, utilities, car payments, medical care for yourself and your family. Lowest on the priority list? Entertainment, unnecessary car trips, and student loan payments. You finally find another job, or resolve your medical issues, and … WAIT … you cannot be hired, for your license has been suspended by the state due to being in default on your student loans. Your license will be reinstated when you catch up those loan payments … with additional interest, of course. But how can you do that without a job? Makes about as much sense as … nothing, right?
What’s even worse, is South Dakota and Iowa, where they can and will suspend your driver’s license for defaulting on your student loan! You cannot even legally get to an interview, and if you managed that, you would not be able to drive to work!
Shannon Otto, of Nashville, Tennessee could tell you a bit about it. After years of school and thousands of dollars of loans, she eventually landed her dream job as a nurse, in Tennessee, a state facing a shortage of nurses. Then, after working for more than a decade, she started having epileptic seizures. They arrived without warning, in terrifying gusts. She couldn’t care for herself, let alone anyone else. Unable to work, she defaulted on her student loans. Ms. Otto eventually got her seizures under control, and prepared to go back to work and resume payments on her debt. But Tennessee’s Board of Nursing suspended her license after she defaulted. To get the license back she would have to pay more than $1,500. She couldn’t.
The average student leaves college with about $37,000 in student loan debt. The monthly payment on a $37,000 student loan is approximately $351. And that assumes the student went to a public university rather than a for-profit, private school. Those who have been working for most of their lives don’t think much of a $351 payment, but for a young person just starting out in an entry-level position, that can be a lot of money. I was very lucky to come through my first four years of college with zero debt, due to Pell Grants, scholarships, and working 2, sometimes 3 jobs at a time throughout those four years, but not everybody is as lucky … most aren’t, in fact. My daughter, who has two nursing degrees and a degree in computer programming currently has more than $109,000 in student loans, which have been in deferment, but we will resume payments on in January. As she said to me today, she expects to be paying on her loans until the day she dies.
Student loan payments are now the largest source of household debt outside of mortgages. Until recently, the state and federal recourse for defaulters has included lawsuits, property liens, wage attachments, and seizing tax refunds. The tactic of suspending licenses is far more crippling, and plunges the debtor into a vicious circle from which he/she may not be able to exit.
Proponents of the move say that it is unfair for taxpayers to have to foot the bill for unpaid loans, and they rationalize that the defaulter will ‘find a way’ to pay their default in order to get their license back. Don’t you just love it when those who have never been in a situation sit back and say that those going through it will ‘find a way’? But critics on both sides of the partisan aisle argue that it is wrong. Daniel Zolnikov, a Republican state representative in Montana says, “It’s like shooting yourself in the foot, to take away the only way for these people to get back on track.” In 2015, Mr. Zolnikov co-sponsored a bill with Representative Moffie Funk, a Democrat, that stopped Montana from revoking licenses for people with unpaid student debt — a rare instance of bipartisanship.
Tabitha McArdle earned $48,000 when she started out as a teacher in Houston. A single mother, she couldn’t keep up with her monthly $800 student loan payments. In March, the Texas Education Agency put her on a list of 390 teachers whose certifications cannot be renewed until they make steady payments. She now has no license.
States that withhold professional and or drivers’ licences for default of student loans include: Alaska, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.
Does anybody imagine that, with Betsy DeVos, one of the elite 1%, serving as head of the Department of Education, more states won’t be encouraged to follow this path? This can only keep some of those who would be the best and brightest from pursuing a college education. We, as a nation, have already fallen behind in education rankings worldwide. According to a Pew Research study earlier this year, “Recently released data from international math and science assessments indicate that U.S. students continue to rank around the middle of the pack, and behind many other advanced industrial nations.”
Bernie Sanders ran for president last year on a democratic-socialist platform that included free college and health care for all. While it sounded great, it would not have been sustainable. I do not propose free college for all, but today, college in the U.S. is outrageously out of reach for the average high school graduate, and likely to become even more so in the coming years. Like so many other things in this nation today, the benefit is weighted heavily toward that top 1% that we keep hearing about. More and more, students are opting for trade or vocational schools. So, I ask you, who will be the doctors, lawyers, educators and government representatives a generation from now?
We hear of the ‘dumbing down’ of America. Perhaps it is not such a far-fetched concept after all.