Excerpt from The Debt Trap by Josh Mitchell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Debt Trap

How Student Loans Became a National Catastrophe

by Josh Mitchell

The Debt Trap by Josh Mitchell X
The Debt Trap by Josh Mitchell
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2021, 272 pages

    Aug 2022, 272 pages


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Eddie Bennett
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Lisa's lawyer needed an answer. The government isn't budging, her bankruptcy attorney said on the other end of the line. How much more money should we offer?

It was Monday, August 13, 2018. The midday sun beat down on Lisa as she stood in a plaza dotted with palm trees at the University of South Florida in Tampa, pacing in front of the doors to the student center, phone pressed to her ear, as she discussed her fate with the attorney, Bob Lohr.

She had just dropped off her 18-year-old daughter, Stephanie, for freshman orientation. The long drive down I-95 from their home in Chester, Pennsylvania, had been eerily quiet. Stephanie, normally bubbly, had jitters about starting college in a new city. Lisa didn't feel like talking, either. She was suffering another bout of agony over her own student debt. She had been paying off her federal student loans for 17 years, starting when Stephanie was an infant. Lisa still owed nearly $100,000. She worried she would go to her grave with it.

In a prior generation, a mother dropping off her daughter at college would be cause for celebration, the first step toward the American Dream. In 2018, Lisa, a 54-year-old single mother of two, was two years into bankruptcy in a seemingly endless struggle with the U.S. government over the price of her education.

Before Lisa, no one in her family had gone to college. In the early 1990s, she was a secretary in her 20s when she decided to give college a shot. She enrolled at Fairleigh Dickinson University, a private college across the street from her work. As her studies progressed, she realized that her dream of becoming a psychologist required a graduate degree, thanks to state licensing rules. After she received her undergraduate diploma, she enrolled in a graduate program at nearby Widener University. As she piled new loans on top of old loans, the financial counselors at each school reassured her that student debt was "good debt," an investment in her future.

Exhibit 1 of her bankruptcy documents listed how much she had sent over the years to Sallie Mae and its spinoff, a company called Navient, to repay her student loans. Month after month, year after year, she mailed off those payments, each check for more than $700. After some 160 checks, she had paid $135,603.34. Most of it, $100,000, went toward interest, padding the profits of Sallie Mae. Her balance now sat at $96,820. At this pace she'd be well into retirement before it was paid in full.

Exhibit 2 was the document from Main Line Health laboratories, dated 08-31-2016. "LEFT BREAST," it said, followed by these words underlined in pen: "WELL-DIFFERENTIATED LOBULAR CARCINOMA."

Congress, hoping to claw back every penny it lent to students, had made it so hard for borrowers to discharge student loans in bankruptcy that Lisa's breast cancer wasn't a sufficient reason to escape her debt. That's what the lawyers representing the U.S. Department of Education told the judge.

How could this happen? she had asked herself over and over.

Her daughter Stephanie was about to get into student debt herself. Instead of the American tradition of parents passing wealth to their offspring, daughter was about to join mother in debt. Lisa cringed at the thought that Stephanie might be headed for the same fate: years of sleepless nights worrying about how she'd ever pay it all as her children slept in a bedroom nearby.

As she paced in front of the student center, Lohr told her the government wanted another 14 years of payments totaling $150,000. She reflected on the years of payments, the times when the student loan bill came before putting away savings for her children's college education, how it had prevented her from having a house with a yard. She thought about how she might not have much longer to live.

No, she told Lohr. She wouldn't do this anymore. Give them my retirement money, she said defiantly.

Excerpted from The Debt Trap by Josh Mitchell. Copyright © 2021 by Josh Mitchell. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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