Live-blogging my student loan exit counseling.
Armed with a bag of Reese’s dark miniatures, I prepare for student loan debt with the help of several government websites.
Because I receive federal student loans, exit counseling is a required step in the process of graduating from my master’s program. Failure to complete it could prevent me from receiving my diploma. The link I received in an email from my graduate school sends me to Federal Student Aid, an OFFICE of the U.S. DEPARTMENT of EDUCATION, PROUD SPONSOR of the AMERICAN MIND™ (studentloans.gov). This, right down to the capitalization, is how it appears on their website.
I enter my personal information, including my federal PIN, which I always remember is very easy to remember, and usually think is between one of two options. It is, in fact, a third unremembered option.
I am locked out because of too many attempts on my PIN and redirected to the federal PIN website (pin.ed.gov). They have an extravagant menu of confusing options, none of which seem to fit my predicament.
I try “check PIN status.” My status is too many attempts. I go through security steps — it asks me where I was born — and I’m back. I see that you can set your own PIN. That’s great! I think to myself, I can have a PIN I remember!
I set my PIN to the same as all my other PINs (let’s be honest) and go back to the loans site.
That’s not your PIN, it says. I try again. And again. That’s not your PIN, it says, Who the fuck do you think you are? (It doesn’t really say that.)
So I unlock the PIN again (still born in NYC), and just for kicks reset it one more time. I notice that it says I have to notify all sites of a change in PIN. There’s a link to FAFSA (that’s the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, by the way) where it suggests I correct my entry. My bad! I think. I go to FAFSA and log in (fafsa.gov).
“Correct your entry” is not an option, but I see “Request duplicate PIN.” Okay, fine. Back to the PIN site.
It turns out “Request duplicate PIN” means “show on screen the PIN you already have which is otherwise totally inaccessible no matter how many times you’ve already logged in to this site.” There is a drop down menu that asks if I want to see the PIN in front of me or receive an email later. I pick now, please, and consider whether a drop down menu is really the right tool for this job.
I view my PIN. It hasn’t changed from the two times I’ve tried to reset it. It’s still reminiscent of those earlier two options I couldn’t settle between. I am a moron, I think, not for the last time.
Back at Federal Student Aid, I enter my social security number into a government website for the thirty-eighth time* today (*estimate).
I’m six Reese’s cups and a bag of barbecue chips in already, and all I’ve done is log in to the system.
I get started with the exit counseling. The first thing that comes up is my total loan amount due. I am shocked and cry a bit. This is completely involuntary.
Of course, there is nothing shocking about the loan amount, per se. It’s ballpark what I imagined/knew from meticulous financial planning it should be at this point. It is the cost of a two-ish year master’s program, and far from the worst it could be. I’ve even paid all my interest to date just to keep the number manageable and round.
But the number isn’t round. And even though it says “estimated,” I panic. Why do they need to estimate? Shouldn’t they just know?! Can I give the extra back?!?! Will I ever be happy?!?!?!
I go to my loan provider (myfedloan.org) and logging in is not a struggle because I’ve allowed Google, a different but no less pervasive and obtuse organization than the US government, to remember my username and password for me.
FedLoan Servicing tells me everything is basically copacetic, but there’s new loan interest I hadn’t seen yet that pushes the number above $33k, an amount that seems disproportionately more insurmountable. I eat another Reese’s cup, grit my teeth, and pay it, to the penny, to preserve that round amount that isn’t reflected in the official documentation I’m currently filling out on a different but related website which is threatening to log me out due to inactivity.
The first pop quiz they hit you with on the exit counseling is “As of today, how much do you owe in student loans?” Just to be a dick, I enter the actual amount, and not what is listed above.
I accidentally eat the paper on a Reese’s cup.
I go through “Loan Basics.” Mine are Direct Unsubsidized. There’s a glossary that includes “capitalized interest,” the thing I’m trying to avoid by paying my interest now — having accumulated interest added back into the principal amount of the loan so that it, in turn, accumulates more interest. I understand that this should be my worst fear, above even death, spiders, and the irrational thoughts we all have that none of our friends really like us and everything is an elaborate charade.
My payments must begin six months after graduation. Add this to the growing list of why I need to reformat my resume. This information is provided in very small print on a very large chart, only 25% of which applies to me.
This concludes “Understand Your Loans” and we move on to “Plan to Repay.” A multiple choice selection of repayment plans illustrates that all possible options involve me paying minimum $10,000 more than my current loan amount over time, which is the sort of thing that seems like it should be a joke but actually isn’t.
There’s a whole worksheet I can do about budgeting other expenses and how much income I have coming in, but this is the kind of thing that keeps me awake at night counting, adding, and subtracting the same figures until I eventually pass out, so I scroll down and eat four more Reese’s cups, figuring it’ll work itself out.
The details of the above options are laid out in another peculiarly small-fonted chart. There are more repayment plans, of course, the kind based on income, each of which has an option to forgive your debt after 20-25 years or 10 years of public service. Understanding whether you may qualify and what the payments are like is a bit like reading a grade school logic puzzle, right down, again, to the fact that it is displayed in a chart.
I try to see how much I would have to pay per month in order to not pay $10,000 more than the amount I borrowed, but the world’s worst repayment calculator won’t let me raise my monthly contribution more than $100. I suppose it’s just being realistic.
I also try telling it I’ll give it $10,000 right off the bat, but I still wind up with over $7,000 in interest.
So that’s helpful.
I try to leave this section but it turns out the scary terrible worksheet is mandatory, so I tell it I have no other expenses and will be making $100,000 a year. It tells me I will have a nice, easy life, which sounds okay, so I guess in that way this experience was helpful and uplifting.
In “Avoid Default” I learn about deferment and forbearance, which are 95% the same thing except for one or two details that don’t apply to me anyway. (Why is this not a customized experience?) I don’t worry too much about this section because my degree is in media and communications and I figure a good crowdfunding campaign can help me get through the lean times if I ever get desperate.
There’s a friendly blue reminder that student loans are only forgiven in bankruptcy if repayment would cause undue financial hardship, which is literally the most catch-22 sentence I’ve ever read because WTF is bankruptcy other than Please help because everything causes me undue financial hardship.
Also, my personal favorite part of exit counseling which I actually screenshotted the first time I went through the process is that one of the few ways to get your loans forgiven is to die.
The second image is from 2012, and personally I believe it to be funnier based on principles of comedic timing. There’s more of a build up and reveal, if you know what I mean.
The next section explains that, unsurprisingly, being delinquent or defaulting on my loans can cause an increase in fees and overall increase the amount I need to pay back. I say unsurprisingly not because it seems right that I be penalized for this behavior but because everything about this process seems to cause an increase in fees and the overall amount I need to pay back.
Fun fact: Federal Student Aid apparently has an Ombudsman (Ombudsperson, I think, because I am a feminist and this is the kind of thing that is important to me).
Finally, loan consolidation means if I have a lot of little loans, I can combine them into one big super loan. If you have ever seen Guardians of the Galaxy, this is kind of like when all the tiny ships team up and connect to make one big super force-field to prevent the evil ship from reaching the planet. Of course, they all get crushed and die in a fiery explosion, but this is not the point of the metaphor.
The next section is titled “Make Finances a Priority,” which sounds a little condescending so like, thanks Mom, but I make my own decisions.
The final section is actually a surprise reprieve because it’s just asking for (more) personal information. My last address is in there because I didn’t change it when I moved/would never in a million years have realized that’s a thing I needed to do and even if I did would never in an additional million years have been able to figure out how to change it. It’s a good thing they prompt me to correct it because I accidentally had a pair of jeans from the Gap delivered to my old address once and that was literally uncorrectable, so I imagine this would be a thousand times worse.
The last possible question on here asks me to actually select a repayment plan and I’m suddenly wishing I hadn’t completed this worksheet with the ludicrous $100,000 salary. I pick the standard (that’s 10 years, lots of money per month) because I can’t abide the idea of owing more interest in the long run and because maybe somehow I’m still optimistic that this is in any way possible.
I am invincible.