Katie Hayes Luke for NPR
Angela Powell met her “prince” during her freshman year of college. She dreamed of a happy marriage, a successful career and two wonderful children. After graduating, she got married and started the other two, attending business school while her husband earned his law degree, before the two settled down to start families in Arizona.
At that time, they decided to consolidate their loans under a new Ministry of Education program for married couples. The benefits were high – a lower interest rate on their debt and only one payment to worry about per month.
“I didn’t think it was a big deal because we were going to pay for all of this. We’re going to be married forever, right?” said Powell. “Fast forward to the housing market crisis in 2009/2010. It’s not a happy marriage anymore. Everybody’s losing their jobs.”
After the divorce, Powell’s relationship with her ex soured. Documents reviewed by NPR show that he has not made regular payments on the loan since 2016, despite the fact that he initially took on nearly double his debt. Thanks to the consolidation, they are now together for nearly $200,000, more than five times the amount of Powell’s original loan.
“I’m stuck with this thing on my back,” Powell says, “and knowing that at the end of the day, if he chooses not to pay, guess what? My monthly payment is $1,942.50.”
More than 14,000 borrowers participated in the short-lived program, which Congress shut down in 2006. It seemed like a simple concept: joint consolidation loans allowed couples to have one monthly payment with a lower interest rate. . The problem arose when trying to separate loans in the event of divorce or domestic violence. The program has no way of sorting out debts.
“It sounds pretty simple. If you can put something together, you can take it apart,” says Patrick Stebly. He’s been in this situation since his divorce in 2013 and has spent the past five years trying to change it for everyone.
Stebly’s advocacy inspired legislation to remedy this problem. Introduced by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Rep. David E. Price, DN.C., the bill would allow, in cases of divorce or domestic violence, joint loans to be split proportionately based on the original loan amounts. Nearly half a dozen families in this situation told NPR it was the solution they needed.
Parker Michels-Boyce for NPR
Warner first introduced the bill in 2017 after a constituent tried to pay off her abusive ex-husband’s student loans. She had moved from Florida to Virginia to get away from him.
“While she physically escaped, she couldn’t escape this mutual debt … from an abusive husband. That’s just plain untrue,” Warner said.
After the bill was introduced, people from across the United States contacted the senator’s office asking for relief from the consolidation program.
There’s no data on how many original borrowers have since separated, but national and state domestic violence organizations say economic sabotage — like freezing a spouse’s credit — is one of the main tactics used in abusive relationships.
“It’s so powerful that many survivors cite their ability to financially support themselves and their children as one of the main reasons they stay in an abusive relationship,” says Monica McLaughlin of the National Network to End. Domestic Violence.
NPR spoke with borrowers who had suffered physical and mental abuse from former partners who are now refusing to repay their student loans; they say Warner’s legislation would free them.
“There are so many obstacles that survivors face,” McLaughlin said. “Let’s shoot this one and watch the next one.”
Stebly and his ex-wife are among the lucky ones. They have a friendly relationship, so after their separation, they made a legal agreement to repay their loans: his ex-wife pays him her share of the loan, then he pays the lender. It’s a workaround, but it has some drawbacks. His ex-wife should be eligible for civil service loan forgiveness, but she cannot claim it to clear her debt because their loans are consolidated.
Officials have told Stebly time and time again: It would only take less than 1,000 words to resolve this issue and separate their loans – but those words must be approved by Congress.
“I sent thousand-word emails trying to talk about this thing, you know, every day for a while, trying to get somebody excited about it,” Stebly said. “To me, it seems very simple.”
Parker Michels-Boyce for NPR
Holly Rodriguez agrees. She’s a single mother of two in Richmond, Va., and reckoning with her decisions from two decades ago. She’s about to get divorced, she’s defaulted on her student loans — and the two issues are more related than it seems.
Rodriguez’s loan now stands at nearly $72,000. The jump comes from consolidating with her husband’s loan, interest and about 10 years of precarious finances.
“We paid up front,” Rodriguez said. “And then my husband, shortly after my daughter was born, lost his job. It put our finances in a really tough place.”
Rodriguez works in fundraising and communications for nonprofit organizations; her ex-husband works in the restaurant industry as a line cook and dishwasher. Both went through periods of unemployment and had to deal with medical setbacks during their marriage.
Finances were “a very contentious part of our marriage when we were together,” she says, and their split was not amicable. In 2018, she applied for and obtained a protective order for herself and her children. It was later rejected.
Given all of this, getting her ex to pay off her student loans wasn’t a top priority, but the collection agency kept calling. Rodriguez therefore contacted his loan officer to inform him of his situation. She provided her husband’s contact details and proved he was working, but that didn’t matter.
The loan was in his name, and the loan officer said that if she wanted him to pay, she would have to work it out with him.
Rodriguez says her husband stopped regular payments on their student loans years ago. After repeated requests from NPR, he did not respond for comment.
“I was told, ‘Yeah, he co-signed with you, but you signed the papers first, so we sued you first,'” Rodriguez said.
Fearing that any missed payments would have a direct impact on Rodriguez’s credit rating, she took on the entire debt.
“The thing is, I don’t mind paying off my student loans, but I have a problem with having to pay my loans and his loans,” Rodriguez said. “I paid a debt that’s not mine, and that’s not OK. There’s nothing logical about that.”
For two years, joint consolidation borrowers could benefit from the pause on federal student loan repayments, but that will change in just a few months: Payments resume on May 1. President Biden has made clear his aversion to widespread debt cancellation.
Advocates and legislators recognize that a legislative solution should be an easy fix. “Even when things are totally logical and rational, things take longer than expected in Congress,” Warner said.
Pushing legislation through the gears of Congress — the same Congress that failed to pass Biden’s social spending package and recent voting rights legislation — can prove difficult.