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Former students face impasse on college loan consolidations

September 16, 1997

BOSTON (AP) _ All of their possessions had been loaded on a rented truck, but Angela and Curtis Jamison didn’t know if they had a home to drive it to.

The lease had run out on their apartment and their lender had told the couple they would have to consolidate their student loans before the mortgage on their new house could go through.

But like at least 134,000 other graduates, the Jamisons already had been waiting and waiting for their loans to be refinanced by the government.

They’ve been waiting since January, and they’re still waiting.

A change in federal financial aid that was supposed to make the system more efficient has instead created such a backlog for consolidating student loans that the government has stopped accepting applications altogether.

``We’re just in limbo somewhere,″ said Angela Jamison, 32, an economic analyst in Washington. ``When I call I get a message that says, `Due to an extremely high volume, we can’t take your call at this time,′ and it hangs up on you.″

``My company could never keep a contract if we performed like this,″ she said. ``There are standards we have to live up to.″

Only a last-minute break from the mortgage company kept the Jamisons from becoming homeless. They were allowed to temporarily defer their $950 monthly student loan payments and obtain a mortgage.

They have been told the loans are now consolidated, but the amounts don’t match up; they have been unable to get their questions answered and must resume making payments next month.

The tangled situation, to be addressed by a congressional committee beginning Thursday, stems from the separate student loans many students take out for each year of college.

Rolling these loans into one usually lengthens the repayment schedule, lowers the monthly payments and simplifies the borrower’s personal finances. Mortgage lenders commonly demand such refinancing.

The direct-lending program under which the U.S. Department of Education now makes most education loans requires that consolidations be handled by a government contractor, Electronic Data Systems. But the backlog is so large that the department has stopped accepting applications until at least December.

While some borrowers have won deferrals in the meantime, the interest on their loans continues to grow. Others face huge monthly payments.

``I’m being bullied by loan providers that were supposed to help me get an education, not stuff me into a financial hole,″ said David Whalen, a 1996 graduate of the Savannah (Ga.) College of Art and Design who has waited more than eight months to consolidate his 11 student loans.

``What started out with irritation turned into major frustration and fury and finally panic when I started to get threats that I could go into default,″ said Whalen, a 28-year-old graphic designer living in Arlington, Va.

He owes about $30,000 and faces monthly payments of more than $600 while he waits to consolidate his loans to make smaller monthly payments.

Politics plays at least a small part in the problem.

Republicans prefer the old system under which the government subsidized loans from banks and other private lenders, while President Clinton pushed direct loans as the more efficient of the two alternatives.

Ted Freeman, president of the Education Resources Institute, a nonprofit organization that guarantees student loans and also studies financial aid, said of the backlog: ``This will only hurt the students. They’ve been struggling, they’ve been sustaining themselves. If they can’t consolidate, they may fall behind.″

Elizabeth Warner owes $14,500 for her education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. That comes out to $220 a month. She could cut the payments for the six separate loans in half if she consolidated them.

``It may not sound like much, but when you’re right out of college you’re not going to be making a lot of money,″ said Warner, 25, an office manager at an Idaho nursing home who has been trying since March to get her loans refinanced. ``You have tons of loans, you have car payments. And what can we do about it? Nothing. It’s so frustrating.″

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