The vast majority of borrowers who default on their student loans are those without degrees — in 2009, 62.9% of defaulters had no degree, according to a 2014 report from New America Ed Central. Statistically speaking, that makes it a ton of sense: Workers with college degrees have a much higher earning potential than those without, but getting that education has become increasingly expensive. If you invest money in a degree you never earn, it’s probably going to hurt your bank account.
There’s a common attitude among borrowers with no degree that because they didn’t earn the degree or certificate they took out loans for, they don’t have to repay them. Doing nothing about your student loans is a bad, costly and destructive thing to do.
In debt and degree-less — it’s certainly an unpleasant limbo. Unfortunately, you still have to deal with that debt.
“I can’t stress enough of not letting it linger,” said Terrence Banks, credit and student loan counselor at ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions. He said about half the calls he gets are people without degrees who already defaulted on their loans. “Their excuse is, ”’Cause I never finished, I didn’t even think about it.’ A lot of times they don’t even know how much they took out.”
A 3-Step Plan to Begin Repaying
Step one: Figure out who your lender is and how much you owe. This information should be on your credit reports, and you’re entitled to free annual copies from each of the three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Contact information should also be listed next to the account, but if it’s not, an Internet search will help you get that information.
Keep in mind you may have multiple lenders, and you have to stay on top of each loan you took out. Tracking down multiple lenders with different repayment terms may be frustrating, but it’s much less unpleasant than defaulting and all the consequences that come with it, like wage garnishment and a trashed credit standing.
Step two: Explore your repayment options. If you took out federal student loans, ask about income-based repayment plans.
“Typically the income contingent or income driven loan repayment plans are the best options for those out of the gate who have to go into repayment on their student loans,” said Jason DiLorenzo from GL Advisors, a financial adviser group that specializes in student loans. You generally have to start repaying your student loans as soon as (or shortly after) you drop below full-time enrollment. As the name indicates, you’d make payments much in line with your earnings, and after 25 years, your remaining balance may be forgiven.
Making private student loans more affordable is tricky, but doable.
“If you’re making a salary, regardless of if you have a degree, there are some private lenders who are willing to sharpen their pencils and lower your rates,” DiLorenzo said. “There are also some companies out there offering refinancing for private loan borrowers.”
Step three: Stick to your plan. If you’re going to get rid of your debt in the least painful way possible, you have to prioritize your education debt and maintain a budget that allows you to stay current on loan payments. Late payments on any kind of loan will hurt your credit score, the effects of which you’ll feel throughout your finances. (You can see how your student loans are affecting your credit by pulling your credit scores regularly. Credit.com offers two credit scores and a summary of your credit report for free, updated monthly.)
“Just know that you’re not alone. You’re going to be able to handle this,” Banks said. “For people feeling overwhelmed by the process, there are plenty of nonprofit credit counseling agencies, some of which specialize in student loans, that can help you navigate the process.”
Most important: You have to get it started. The longer you let your education debt go, the harder it will be to get out of it. Banks said he gets a lot of calls from older borrowers, because they’d forgotten about it until they started to see their wages garnished. Student loans are rarely discharged in bankruptcy, which is why it’s crucial to stay on top of them.
“Find out who your lenders are. Start making calls,” Banks said. “You’re not going to get everything done on that particular day, but just start the process.”
More on Student Loans:
- How Student Loans Can Impact Your Credit
- How to Pay for College Without Building a Mountain of Debt
- Strategies for Paying Off Student Loan Debt