HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Americans have more than $1.4 trillion to repay in student debt, and Mississippians struggle more than anyone else in the country to repay their loans.
The government tracks the percentage of students successfully paying their loans back, and statewide, Mississippi students have the lowest repayment rate in the country at just 48 percent.
"That means a lot of students aren't getting what bargained for out of that education," said Debbie Cochrane with the Institute for College Access and Success.
Tyra Willamor received her bachelor's degree in public health in community health science, health education and promotion and a master's degree in child and family studies from The University of Southern Mississippi.
"At 26, I'm $45,000 in debt. How did that happen?" Willamor said. "I'm living to survive. I'm living to pay every bill. Like, I'll work. I held three jobs getting my bachelor's. I mean, I don't live anymore. I live to work. That's all I do."
In the Pine Belt, Southern Miss has the highest number of students repaying their student loans, with almost three-quarters of those borrowing repaying. Jones County Junior College sits right at the state average with 48 percent of students repaying loans. At Pearl River Community College, 49 percent are paying loan money back and at William Carey University, 69 percent of students are repaying.
"Eighty-one percent is a relatively good repayment rate, but it's not good," said Alan Collinge with StudentLoanJustice.org. "Twenty percent of the people are not paying down their loans, even at the good schools."
The problem is worse at many for-profit schools where even fewer people are able to repay.
"I think there have been huge abuses where CEOs make millions of dollars and they leave 60, 70 percent of their student body with student debt and no meaningful degree," said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virgina.
Locally, Antonelli College and The Academy of Hair Design Six only have about 30 percent of students repaying their student loans.
Here's how the rest of the Pine Belt colleges and universities stack up:
- Antonelli College Hattiesburg: 30 percent 3 year repayment; 18 percent 3 year cohort default rate
- The Academy of Hair Design Six: 32 percent repayment; 7 default
- Jones County Junior College: 48 percent prepayment; 21 percent default
- Pearl River Community College: 49 percent repayment; 22 percent default
- Pearl River Community College Forrest County Center: 49 percent repayment; 22 percent default
- Healing Touch Career College: 62 percent repayment; 9 percent default
- William Carey University: 69 percent repayment; 8 percent default
- University of Southern Mississippi: 73 percent repayment rate; 11 percent default
- Mississippi College of Beauty Culture: Null
- Southeastern Baptist College: Null
"We have to have large systemic reform that might offer community college for free or other offers, but we don't have years to fix that," Warner said. "We've got a whole generation right now that's going to lose the kind of opportunities that I had growing up if we don't enact some of these changes right now."
Warner said while big change is needed, there are some ways to alleviate loan repayment stress immediately.
"Income based repayment., allowing companies to use pre-tax dollars to help pay down student debt, making sure the students get financial counseling before they take out these loans and a real hard conversation with our colleges and universities about keeping their costs in check," he said.
People with student loans cannot declare bankruptcy. Student loans are the only kind of loans in our nation's history to be stripped of that protection.
"I don't have a job, and my student loans kick in in February," Willamor said. "$400 a month. I mean, without a job, how do you pay for that? I would have to defer my student loans or pay a minimum payment on them."
If she does, the federal government makes money.
"They not only make an incredible profit on student loans they actually make a profit off of defaulted student loans," Collinge said. "For every dollar the government pays out on default claims, they get back about a dollar and 10 or 20 cents."
Willamor said, "It's crazy. It's like this huge snowball effect that is just tumbling and getting larger and larger, and there's no way to fix it."
Until there is a solution, Willamor said she is just trying to keep her head above water.
"Is there ever a moment where everything's paid off, and you're like 'oh here's an extra $500 sitting around'? No because you've got all this debt, so you're like just add it to that, you know? It never stops."