What Student Loan Cancelation Means to Me As Someone Who Medically Withdrew From College

A photo of me, a blonde white woman, standing in front of a small catholic university my arms extended upward in celebration.

From early on in high school until the day I chose which college I wanted to transfer to, one thing was a given. College is expensive and I had to figure most of the paying for it out on my own.

Early on in high school my dad retired which meant a few things for a soon to be college aged student. The first was that the student financial aid calculator known as FAFSA would misrepresent what my parents could contribute for my freshman year of college, despite my parents personal financial situation changing dramatically. The second being that my retired parents didn’t have a substantial amount of money to put towards my college education.

I graduated in high school in South Carolina, a state that offers wonderful scholarship incentives for the top 6% of students in each class or students that meet other requirements (a 32 on the ACT at the time or a 1400 on the SAT). This was in 2016, the rules have now been expanded to allow students who score a 25 or higher on the ACT and students with a 1200 or higher on the SAT to receive the Palmetto Fellows award.

With these requirements in mind and the fellow awards money increasing incrementally each year for a 4 year degree it made financial sense for me to look at in state universities. Both Clemson and USC were top contenders.

Throughout Junior and Senior year I worked jobs to earn money for college, while maintaining a perfect GPA, and participating in extracurricular activities that would strengthen my resume and hopefully amount to additional scholarship money.

I was accepted Clemson as a Junior on a preliminary acceptance, and eventually would choose to attend Clemson based on their Architecture program and a generous financial aid package that they offered on top of my Palmetto Fellows award and a few additional scholarships.

Part of my financial aid package included a work study job on campus which would be worked around my course schedule. This amounted to a few hundred extra dollars a month.

Scholarships however didn’t completely cover my tuition, room and board, and as intended I took out the maximum amount of federal student loans. I’m incredibly fortunate that my parents were able to offer financial counseling while college approached so that I was fully familiar with the terms of my loans, what my future would look like and what the best practices would be for paying them off.

High paying jobs were key as the charts provided with the predatorily designed loans were broken down by salary in how quickly those loans could be repaid and just how many thousands of dollars over your original loan amount you’d end up paying over time.

I went in to college as a student with a plan.

By the time I would graduate Clemson I would have an estimate $24,000 in student loans. The plan was that I would begin paying them while I was still in college. I would take any leftover money from work study and I would begin paying down the loans that did accumulate interest. I had both a subsidized and unsubsidized loan each semester, so I would focus on not allowing the interest to compound and then slowly pay more as I got better paying jobs.

My plan for college of course didn’t work out in many ways.

I didn’t end up liking my Architecture program and didn’t want to be an Architect. Which, was probably a good thing as I would’ve added even more loans to my collection needing to take a path through graduate school to really be successful with that career. I needed to transfer.

However, my Palmetto Fellows scholarship which covered a substantial amount of my tuition each year was hinged on me remaining in the state of South Carolina.

For over a month I made the drive from Clemson to Charleston to sit down with my parents and go over all of my options, go over what could be done financially, and go over all the possible implications transferring would have every single weekend. I debated for a bit on transferring to College of Charleston, I would likely save some money being able to commute from home, but they didn’t have a program that interested me.

I was torn between going to Texas for a dual Architecture and Interior Design hybrid program or going to Wisconsin to study Interior Design. Both of which would have costly implications on the remaining cost of my education.

Pieces began to fall into place at a small private university in Milwaukee where my sister in law worked in financial aid. Due to being a transfer student who continued to have a high grade point average, I qualified for a scholarship match that would mostly make up for the Palmetto Fellows award. I would be able to live with family in the Milwaukee area, I’d commute to school so I wouldn’t have to pay for an expensive meal plan, and I would get to pursue the Interior Design path I knew better fit me as a person.

That year, FAFSA was more accurate to my parent’s retired living situation and I qualified for a Pell Grant in addition to my new scholarship package.

Thankfully, not too much changed with the plan as to how much college would end up costing me, but the new school was much smaller so despite being approved for a work study position, the options were slim and didn’t pay a sustainable amount.

I chose that year to apply for work off of campus and got my first adult job at a custom furniture company. This job paid substantially more than my former work study job, but I was working close to full time on top of attending school full time. But I had a plan. And the plan was only being sped up. I could now make larger payments on my student loans while working towards my degree. I could pay more than just the interest and I began making payments of a few hundred dollars each semester on the subsidized loans to get those lower and keep the interest that did accumulate lower as well.

I was all set. By the end of my Sophomore year of college I had moved into my own apartment closer to work. I was moving up in my job role to a higher paying position that would lend itself to a career already in place upon graduation. Everything was working out perfectly.

By the time I graduated, I would have paid down at least $4,000 in loans.

Except I was sick.

I had gotten sick, really sick, about 10 days after I graduated from high school.

Evidently this was not a part of the plan.

I took the approach for the first year to just push through. That these severe migraines and constant need for medication was just my life now and I was going to have to do life in absolute agony.

Part of the reason I chose to go north when transferring was because of how sick I was. My migraines had gotten progressively worse over high school to the point that I had a specialist who managed my care, but I still lived a totally normal life and didn’t give them much thought. One theory I had was that the weather and barometric pressure of living in the Carolinas was contributing the worsening of my migraines. When I’d been a kid in Midwest, I hadn’t been suffering like this. I was also awfully stressed out in my environment at Clemson. Clemson was a problem, but it wasn’t THE problem.

Moving halfway across the country didn’t make me any better.

The eight month long disruption in my migraine care actually contributed to me getting worse as I fell into an intractable migraine and a horrible pattern of medication abuse just trying to find any semblance of relief.

By the time my Sophomore year ended, despite how picture perfectly I was following the plan, I was severely disabled by my migraine disease and landed in the hands of a Headache Specialist too late.

Before the start of the fall semester, I submitted my paperwork to Medically Withdraw from the university.

Two entire years of my life. Almost $12,000 in debt. And absolutely nothing in the future indicating that I was going to get better.

I was approved for Social Security Disability that following winter.

A Chance to Have My Debt Erased

Being approved for disability wasn’t something I had imagined was possible, especially not on the first try, but there I was approved. My paperwork indicated I would be up for review with 1-2 years.

This was okay. The world of migraine was changing. New drugs were on the horizon and surely I would have my life back and the review wouldn’t be necessary. I could go on with my life.

But as the years went by, the new drugs didn’t give me my life back.

I began to wonder what I could do for work, knowing that I struggled to meet my own basic needs. I fumbled with various ideas. I could work in a morgue maybe, that would be dark and maybe I could make my own schedule. But getting through mortuary school would be an obstacle. I certainly couldn’t work as a designer. Everything about interior design showrooms are bright. How could I avoid paint smells?

I realized the two years worth of a degree that I did have, were useless. It made no sense to try and finish the degree, the field just wasn’t accessible to someone with such severe migraine.

But other jobs that paid well? They still required degrees. Work from home in 2019 meant having an associates degree at minimum in business or maybe marketing or human resources. Feasibly, this could be an option.

I was already $12,000 in the hole and now had a major gap in my education. How would I finance an associates degree? I decided that would simply be a question for when I was actually healthy enough to take a single course, not a hypothetical worth dwelling on.

Paperwork began arriving from social security: Total and Permanent Disability Discharge.

One of the options for loan forgiveness was available to me. There were three different routes to acquiring it:

  • Documentation from the VA – only available to disabled veterans
  • A 5-7 year review period on your Social Security disability paperwork
  • A letter from your doctor indicating your condition is deadly, your condition has lasted for 60 continuous months or is expected to last for at least 60 continuous months.

Sixty continuous months is 5 years.

My disability was backdated to July of 2017, meaning that 60 continuous months would at the earliest be the summer of 2022. At that point, I was halfway through (this was late 2019) this period and my neurologist had agreed that we were out of treatment options and that future treatment options weren’t going to give me my life back.

I was on an Income Based Repayment plan at the time and being on SSDI, my monthly repayment amount was $0. I was accumulating interest over this time, so all of the progress I’d made paying down my loans in college was essentially erased.

Having my loans forgiven wasn’t a high priority since I wasn’t in a bad place due to my loan payments. So I had time to mull over my options.

Total and Permanent Disability Discharge has consequences to it that I didn’t like. If approved, there is a discharge monitoring period of three years. In this time frame, you cannot take out another federal student loan as it indicates you are able to engage in Substantially Gainful Activity and are no longer eligible for your loans to be discharged.

This is contrary to Social Security’s stance on continued education which does not include college under all circumstances to be gainful activity that means you are no longer disabled. This is especially important because you can get a degree and have disability accommodations and not attend full time while still being on disability. For a lot of people, this is a path forward and off of disability as they can then seek out employment that works for their health needs.

The biggest issue is that of future loan eligibility. During your review period, all of your former loans would be reinstated.

If for example I chose to wait until now, summer of 2022 when it has been 60 consecutive months of disability, I would not be able to apply for another loan until 2025.

This means that I have no way to finance any future education I may want to receive that would be better suited to where my health is now and begin the process of working towards personal independence for another three whole years simply because the initial degree path I chose is incompatible with my health.

I of course, didn’t pursue this option and am still quite sick. This perhaps would have been an argument to have just gotten the paperwork over with when I first encountered it, but we can’t change the past now can we?

But I am now in a place where I can take on minor freelance projects, and due to the pandemic am able to do so in the field of interior design as virtual design has become desired. This solves the issue of future education, but because I am doing small amounts of work as I am able to supplement my social security, another Total and Permanent Discharge rule becomes an issue. For the three year review period, I must remain in poverty. If I earned more than the poverty line, my loans would be reinstated.

This is another less than desirable rule. Disabled folks are mostly doing their best to get slightly ahead of bad situations. If I’m able to increase how much I can work, I’m still pretty far away from what’s considered Substantially Gainful Activity that would mean I’m not disabled anymore, but I could very feasibly work towards my own independence.

The disability discharge that is currently available to us just isn’t a viable option for me. It limits me in a handful of ways and postpones my future in ways that aren’t necessary.

Of course, these rules all exist for a reason. Discharge of loans is serious. Even though I qualify, the people who are in charge don’t really care about the nuances of college education and how getting sick may not prevent me from pursuing all available paths, but having existing loans does. They don’t want folks who get better to reap these benefits, but these rules then leave behind people like me who do want their options to remain more open. They are strict on purpose.

Student Loan Cancelation Changes All of That

This week, Joe Biden and his administration made the first steps towards broad student loan cancelation.

For people making under $125,000 a year, borrowers are eligible for up to $10,000 of cancelation with an additional $10,000 for recipients of the Pell Grant.

With this single piece of legislative action, getting sick in college and having this debt hanging over me, is simply gone.

I am fortunate to have received the Pell grant, so all of the debt that I have will be wiped out.

I do not have to spend time dwelling on the money spent towards a degree I will never hold in my hands. I don’t have to feel so guilty about how perfect I was following my plan. I don’t have to hold onto these ideals that I was doing it right – despite the obvious it doesn’t matter how right you do it when the loans are predatory and deceptive to begin with. I can let that go.

I don’t have to sit here and wonder what my options may be if I do decide to explore future education. No more what ifs.

I don’t have to think about the grueling paperwork. Or trying to convince a doctor to complete it.

My future is simply open to me.

My health may never get to the place it was when I was a bright eyed high schooler with the whole world ahead of me. I’ve long accepted that as the reality of both the disease I have and choices I made.

But for the first time since handing over my Medical Withdrawal form when a sweet receptionist said “maybe one day we’ll see you again, that’s what this form allows” I can actually see that future as a possibility.

For me, student loan cancelation is the gift of a clean slate.

A slate without guilt of illness.

A slate without the mistakes I made in my degree choice.

A slate that doesn’t care what credits I do or don’t already have.

Just a clean slate.

A.

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