New Federal Program Aims to Help Student Debtors, But Is it Too Late?

DeSoto resident Pamela Bradley, who once worked for the city of Dallas, feels cheated by the education system. She was raised to believe that education leads to better jobs, so she got a master's degree and started a Ph.D. program. But now Bradley finds herself in this disheartening position: Her annual salary is less than half of the ever-growing total in student loans she owes.

She's not alone. The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) works to make education more affordable for Americans through lobbying and education. They also run a Web site dedicated to disseminating information about a new federal program created to help people like Bradley who owe more than they make called "income based repayment."

President Obama touched on the program during Wednesday's State of the Union: "And let's tell another one million students that when they graduate, they will be required to pay only 10 percent of their income on student loans, and all of their debt will be forgiven after 20 years -- and forgiven after 10 years if they choose a career in public service, because in the United States of America, no one should go broke because they chose to go to college."

The next day, the TICAS site saw a spike in traffic, proving that a lot of people are still learning about the federal program. According to the site, two-thirds of four-year college graduates in 2008 left school with more than $23,000 in student loan debt.

"Many lenders could be doing a better job of publicizing the program," says Edie Irons, communications director at TICAS.

Bradley fled Oklahoma after a nasty divorce in 1990 and moved to Texas with her young daughter. She found a part-time job at a bank and went to work on a master's degree in sociology at Texas A&M University-Commerce. In 2002, tired of one class here, one class there, she quit another job and enrolled full time in the master's program.

She started amassing debt by taking out more than $30,000 in federal loans from Xpress Loan Servicing Center to pay for family housing, books and expenses for her daughter, who was 11 years old at the time. She completed her master's the following year, but Bradley still couldn't find the job she felt she deserved with her degree. She was working full time for the city of Dallas as an investigator in the Fair Housing office, but the work was only contractual, not permanent. She began a Ph. D. program in sociology at University of North Texas.

In the meantime, her mom got sick, had brain surgery, and moved in with her in 2005. "I quit my job, pulled my retirement, pulled my savings," Bradley says. "I ended up losing my house in foreclosure and lost my car." The family moved into a rental property. "If you've lost your credit and you have inadequate finances, there's nothing you can do. You're in the same boat as someone who has nothing. You're limited as to what you can do."

The income based repayment program is now her only hope for help. In her purse, Bradley carries documents stating her current debts: $27,949.71 in subsidized loans and $58,852.89 in unsubsidized.

"At this stage, what the government has proposed is the only solution for me, and I'm sure a thousand others out there are in the same boat." She plans to keep telling her story and let people and politicians know, "Hey, we're really struggling here. We can't make it."

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Kimberly Thorpe
Contact: Kimberly Thorpe