Published: July 13, 2014
At 40 years old, Tara Raskie knows she'll be buried with her student loan debt.
A Colorado Springs single mom with daughters who are 19 and 17, Raskie owes $87,000 in federal student loan debt and $7,000 in Colorado student loan debt.
For her state debt, a 25 percent garnishment is automatically taken from her retail job paycheck.
She's on a program repaying $25 a month for her federal debt. At that rate, it would take 290 years to pay off what she owes.
But that's all she can afford.
"It's overwhelming," she said. "I don't even think about it because I know that I will literally die before I get it paid off."
Raskie is among 13,981 Coloradans - 16.2 percent of Colorado former students paying back student loans - who defaulted on their student loans between 2010 and 2013, according to the Federal Student Aid Office of the U.S. Department of Education. Nationally, 600,545 people - 14.7 percent of former students in repayment - defaulted in those years.
She works 65 hours a week between her two jobs as a paraprofessional at Rampart High School and a retail job.
Raskie has been struggling financially for 15 years.
When Raskie got pregnant after her junior year at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, she dropped out and walked away from a basketball partial scholarship. She was 21 credits short of a bachelor's degree in education or communication.
Raskie was in and out of Metro State University of Denver and UCCS, trying to balance kids, work and school. She really wanted to finish and she didn't want to work decorating cakes at Walmart for the rest of her life.
Meanwhile, interest on her student loans piled up - Raskie said about $25,000 of her debt is interest - as she prioritized providing for her family and paying for things like her youngest daughter's club volleyball.
Eventually Raskie stopped making student loan payments altogether and in 2010, she defaulted on all of her loans at once.
"Life just took off," she said.
Colorado Department of Higher Education Director of Financial Aid Celina Duran said there are more and more ways to avoid defaulting on a student loan, but transferring plans can take time and paperwork.
"Generally, it seems like there are more options for students who are savvy, but you're always going to find those gaps of students who aren't and don't know where to look," Duran said.
Former students who can't afford to repay their loans don't have to default. They can get an income-based repayment. They can also enter graduated repayment, so they pay more each month as they get further along in their careers. They can extend repayment so they pay a smaller fixed rate each month. Or they can ask for a deferral or forbearance to put off making payments for a while.
People who default on a student loan don't do any of those things. Like Raskie, they just stop paying.
Colorado College Director of Financial Aid Jim Swanson said defaulting on a student loan is the last thing a person should do.
"To not pay back any type of loan is not a good situation, but to default on a student loan - there's so many different repercussions," he said.
People who default on a student loan can be sued. Their credit rating can be damaged. They cannot receive federal financial aid. They can be denied professional, occupational, business, industry, recreational or driving licenses. And they are ineligible for deferments, forbearances and repayment plan options.
Once Raskie defaulted, the only people reaching out to her were debt collectors. She had no one to counsel her through taking out student loans or really help her understand her payment options. Now that's she's defaulted, she's stuck in debt.
Raskie wishes her debt was gone so she could rebuild her credit. She'd like to be able to breathe from paycheck to paycheck. She wishes she could save money to buy her daughter a car.
"I know they're just things, but how about a trip?" Raskie said. "We've never taken a family trip. Ever."
She's trying to keep her kids from making the same mistakes. Raskie hopes her younger daughter August gets a full scholarship to play volleyball. Her older daughter, Sloan, who will be a sophomore at Doane College in Crete, Neb., this fall, is on a partial track scholarship and received student loan counseling.
Federal student loan money comes out of the federal treasury and is part of the national debt, so, unlike with other debts, Raskie can't declare bankruptcy and be absolved of student loan debt. But it isn't inheritable, so her kids won't have to pay off her student debt in addition to their own.
"I'm not a bad person," Raskie said. "I've worked my butt off my entire life and have done the best that I can with what I was given."