The lonely shame of student debt



The phone rings. I answer. Credit-card collector—again. A pleasant voice on the other end of the line: “Can you please verify the last four digits of your Social Security number?” I verify. The voice then asks me if I consent to letting them use my phone number to contact me about my credit-card debt. I say no, I do not consent. “Well, how would you like us to contact you to give you updates about your account?” You can send the updates in the mail, I tell the voice. “Very well, please hold on while I transfer you.” I hold.

Another pleasant voice comes on the line: “We’re calling about the status of your account. According to our records, you have not made the current minimum payment. We would be glad to process an electronic check for $92.55 to bring your account current.” No, I say, I can’t do that.

“Well, is there a reason why you can’t make your payment at this time?” the new voice asks.

My answer jumps out of me: “I can’t make the payment because I am deep in student-loan debt, trying to finish graduate school, looking for work, there is no work, the higher-education market is completely devastated, I’m raising a kid, and I happened to go to graduate school right in the middle of a global economic implosion. Sorry.”


Then the voice says: “I’m in graduate school, too.” She’s just working this job because she has three kids and she’s trying to make ends meet, she explains. She tells me she’s going to finish in a year, and she’s looking into Ph.D. programs. We end up having a 10-minute conversation about graduate school and debt. Surreal.

I offer one piece of advice: Don’t pay a dime for a Ph.D. I end by warning her about student loans because they have been stripped of almost every meaningful consumer protection, including the ability to discharge them in bankruptcy. She tells me she had no idea and thanks me for the advice.

Yes, that really happened. What a strange, ironic, and revealing conversation. Ironic because the young woman—who works in the debt-collection industry—did not know that student loans contain few to no consumer protections. Say what you will about the credit-card industry—at least consumers who get into trouble still have basic legal protections. When it comes to student loans (especially private loans), that’s not the case. Far too many people sign up for student loans without knowing how badly the balance of power is tipped in favor of lenders and collection companies.

But the conversation revealed something else as well. The student-debt problem is happening to people across a broad social spectrum, and we don’t always know about others who might be in the same predicament. Many of us assume that we are alone.

Talking about student debt is taboo. Many of us feel shame and embarrassment, and we keep quiet to avoid being seen as complainers or losers. We keep our heads down.

The result is that there are legions of people in the same situation who don’t know that so many others share similar concerns and face similar hardships. This lack of mutually shared knowledge—of a community—helps perpetuate student debt, especially as new generations sign up for student loans without access to the knowledge or experience of those who came before them.

My debt collector and I have a lot in common. But a dehumanized student-financial-aid bureaucracy, combined with shame and lack of shared knowledge, means we don’t know about that common ground. What we don’t know about the realities of our own student debt is killing us, and what we don’t know about the debt of those around us is killing us as well. As the folks from Strike Debt so aptly put it: “You are not a loan.”

The possibilities for meaningful change rest on this powerful bit of shared knowledge: We are not alone.

Author Bio: Ryan Anderson recently received his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Kentucky and is a lecturer at San Diego State University.