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December 3, 2018

Maine college graduates struggle to pay down school debt as state battles with lenders

A new poll shows that student loan debt and predatory practices by some lenders that make paying loans back increasingly expensive prevents a majority of borrowers in the state from buying a home, a car or paying for necessities, and has spurred as many as one in four to move out of state for better-paying jobs.

Female borrowers, those who attended a for-profit college and borrowers in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties are more likely to have issues because of high student loan debt, nearly $6 billion in the state. Issues include affording necessities, attending doctor appointments and picking up prescriptions.

The poll was released by the Maine Center for Economic Policy and the Center for Responsible Lending. Lake Research Partners designed and administered the survey in October, and it reached a total of 400 adults — 31 by telephone and 369 online — with education debt in Maine.

"This poll shows the excruciating challenges Mainers go through in order to stay above water, especially women," said CRL Senior Policy Counsel Whitney Barkley-Denney. "These borrowers, along with 44 million Americans, share the burden of a still-growing $1.5 trillion student loan debt, making it difficult for them to buy a house, start a business, and raise a family."

Graduates from Maine four-year institutions leave school owing an average of $31,364, the 10th worse in the nation, according to 2017 figures from the Institute for College Access and Success.

Some 56% of students at Maine four-year institutions graduate with debt, 28th in the U.S.

Issues with lenders

The most common problems survey respondents report are those that lowered their credit score or increased the overall cost of their loans, or that they were not told about income-based repayment plans.

Barkley-Denney said that while states don't have the power to forgive federal student loan debt, they should be able to regulate student loan servicers operating in their state. "Borrowers deserve to have affordable payment plans that allow them to pay down their debt while being able to pay for everyday expenses," Barkley-Denney.

Gov. Paul LePage has twice vetoed bills passed by the Legislature that would more heavily regulate predatory student loan practices, most recently in June.

Maine, as well as other states have been pushing to crack down on on lenders that mismanage loans, obscure loan deadlines and fail to provide students affordable repayment options, forcing borrowers into default and driving up loan costs.

The U.S. Department of Education, under Secretary Betsy DeVos, has fought to prohibit state laws from regulating servicers and student loan debt collectors.

Last fall, 26 state attorneys general, including Maine Gov.-elect Janet Mills, wrote a letter to DeVos clarifying the rights of states to enforce their own laws, pointing to the narrow scope of the Higher Education Act and other federal statutes in the preemption of state laws concerning student loan servicing and debt collection.

"For Maine to thrive, families here need to be able to plant roots in their communities and participate fully in our state's economy, but student debt is making it harder and harder for families to build lives in our state," said MECEP Associate Director Jody Harris. "In 2017, education debt held by Mainers reached nearly $6 billion, while more and more Mainers report that predatory loan servicers are forcing them into default and increasing the cost of their loan. It's time to curb predatory and misleading practices that leave Mainers with education debt further and further behind."

Key findings

Some findings from the poll include:

  • 60% of respondents say they've struggled to pay a student loan payment, including 65% of female respondents and 53% of male responders.
  • 56% of respondents say that student loan debt means they've reduced the amount they save for retirement.
  • 51% of respondents say that they have had to delay a major purchase, like a car. The number is highest in Maine's western counties, where 61% say they've had to delay a major purchase like buying a car.
  • 42% — 54% in Maine's western counties — say they've had to delay buying a home.
  • 35% said they've had to skip paying for basic necessities, like food and clothing, in order to make loan payments.
  • Of those who have had to skip a bill in order to pay their loans, more than 40% skipped a medical bill and one in four skipped their rent or mortgage.
  • 56% said student loans have affected their ability to save for retirement.
  • More than 40% of respondents know someone who moved to another state in order to take a job that will help them afford payments.
  • 28% of Maine student loan borrowers say that problems with student loan servicers caused them to default on their loan.
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