WRAL Investigates

Defaulting on student loans can have long-term effects

In North Carolina, as many as 55 percent of people currently have student loan debt. The average amount is $18,000.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — In North Carolina, as many as 55 percent of people currently have student loan debt. The average amount, according to a local credit counseling agency, is $18,000.

A student loan is easier to get than other types of loans, but if you default on it, it can have a devastating effect.

That's the case for Vanessa Sumlin.

Sumlin started with $12,000 in federal student loans five years ago, but even after paying $9,600 back, she thinks she still owes about $10,000.

"When I paid $7,500, I didn't hear from them for three years," she said.

Because she stopped paying, she has defaulted on the loan. That means the balance is due and the interest rate increases.

The government is going after her paycheck and her tax refunds to get money. Every two weeks, her paycheck is garnisheed about 15 percent.

"It will stay with you to the grave," said Victoria Wright, an expert in bankruptcy, credit and housing counseling for the nonprofit Hummingbird.org.

"With federal student loans, there's no statute of limitations," she continued. "Even elderly people can have their Social Security offset and garnisheed for a loan that was 50 years before."

Wright says the default rate is on the rise, and more people, like Sumlin, will find themselves stuck.

Part of the problem for Sumlin is the paperwork. It seems to indicate several different balances, and those balances are different from what she's been told over the phone.

Default is difficult, but there are still a few options, Wright says.

"Request a reasonable and affordable payment plan to rehab the loan and bring it out of default," she said.

Wright says there may also be an option to consolidate the loan, which is like refinancing.

Sumlin knows she's at fault but says there's still time for a better payment plan.

"I would love to pay this loan off or just come to a manageable amount," she said.

She moved to Aberdeen to care for her elderly parents. She says she forwarded her mail and figures that's when she stopped getting statements.

Out of sight, out of mind cost her.

"They make it sound really easy and nice," Sumlin said. "They send the money, but before you cash that check, you better read the fine print."

In the 1990s, nearly one in four people defaulted on student loans. The numbers improved for many years but are once again on the rise.