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The lasting burden of college debt

On the left of a split-screen image, Yvonne Evans, wearing a purple hat and sweater, shows her diploma for her masters degree at Liberty University. On the right, Salona Perkins is a college student. She has long braids and is wearing a beige sweater.
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On the left, At age 76, Yvonne Evans still has college loan debt. She shows her Masters Degree diploma. On the right, Salona Perkins is finishing college and works two jobs to pay off her debt. She hopes to work in the legal field.

More than 1 million Virginians owe student loan debt, which can linger for decades. Direct-to-school debt can also prevent students from completing their degrees, because Virginia colleges routinely withhold transcripts which are proof of credits until all debts to the university are settled. Delegate Betsy Carr has introduced legislation to stop the practice of transcript-withholding in Virginia.


YVONNE EVANS (BURKEVILLE RESIDENT): Wow, Zuli, good girl, good girl.

MEGAN PAULY: 76-year-old Yvonne Evans has been trying to pay off student loans for nursing courses she took at Southside Virginia Community College over 30 years ago.

YVONNE EVANS: The loan going to be here when I'm dead and gone. There's no way I can pay it off. I'm not working now. Whole stack over here, let's see.

MEGAN PAULY: Her original balance from 1989 was around $5,500 and has ballooned to nearly $35,000 with interest. Evans now has to pay more than six times her original loan amount.

YVONNE EVANS: I get these every month, every month. You know, I want to feel of value and pay my bills, but I'm just at a standstill. I never thought this would happen to me for almost 13 years, taking care of my mom. I didn't ask anybody for anything, but now I pray so hard, it just look like my prayers are not being answered and I just don't know what to do. What I'm holding in my hand is my diploma.

MEGAN PAULY: Evans was eventually able to earn her bachelor's and master's degrees for free at other Virginia universities, thanks to the Brown v. Board of Education Scholarship Program, which was created by Virginia's legislature in 2004. It was given to students locked out of Virginia schools when districts closed to avoid court-ordered desegregation laws in the 1950s and '60s. But Evans hasn't been able to use the degrees she earned over the years because she had to become a full-time caregiver for relatives who were having health issues. Most recently, she's had a hard time finding work while helping care for her grandkids, yet she still gets monthly student loan bills.

JAY SPEER (CEO, VIRGINIA POVERTY LAW CENTER): There's this huge mindset about go to college and make yourself better and this will be good for you and all this sort of thing, and then people wind up in debt, huge amounts of debt and worse off.

MEGAN PAULY: Around 20% of students who enroll in Virginia colleges drop out within the first year, often with debt and earning low wages. Jay Speer has been helping Virginians with various types of debt for 24 years at the Virginia Poverty Law Center. He says the collection tactics associated with student debt can be intimidating and overwhelming.

JAY SPEER: There's actually been a pretty long history of student debt collection being much harsher than any other kind of debt collection. If your only income is social security, no debt collector can take your bank account or garnish your social security money, except the federal government if you owe them for a student loan.

MEGAN PAULY: There's another type of student debt that can have an equally devastating impact much earlier in life, though it's not federal student loan debt, it's debt owed directly to colleges and universities and often referred to as direct-to-school debt.

JAY SPEER: Pretty typically, the person left college for what anyone would think is a valid reason. They were sick, their mom was sick. Somebody told me once that they were being stalked, you know, all kinds of things that I don't think anybody would fault them for leaving school. They were just shocked when they came back later and tried to get their degree and found out that they either couldn't apply somewhere else because they weren't able to get the transcripts or they weren't going to get credit. I mean, some really fairly heartbreaking stories.

MEGAN PAULY: Salona Perkins was in foster care until age 16 and was solely responsible for paying for college. She had her transcript withheld from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2019. Because Salona's GPA was just shy of the required 2.0 at the end of her third semester, VCU sent her federal financial aid back to the federal government. This is a common reason students end up with direct-to-school debt. Perkins ended up with a balance of about $9,000 directly to VCU, not to mention an additional $2,000 in collection fees.

SALONA PERKINS (STUDENT AND 911 DISPATCHER): Not being able to finish my courses at VCU did take a toll on me mentally. You have all your friends who have succeeded, and you just feel left out. You have to drop all your courses, you have to move out, you have to move back into your parents' house, and your freedom that you once had is gone, so it did take a toll on me mentally. Not only that, I had to figure out a way how I'm going to pay $9,000 back with the jobs I go to every day. It was just a lot emotionally and mentally. I was only 19, 20 and I felt like I was in some sort of midlife crisis. I had this plan set for myself and it was, 'What am I going to do now?'

MEGAN PAULY: Eventually Perkins decided to go back to school at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, but she had to repeat multiple classes since VCU withheld her transcript.

SALONA PERKINS: Having to redo classes is a very frustrating thing because no one wants to redo classes that you've already taken and paid for. Also, with the schedule that I have, it's time consuming to have to redo all those classes again.

MEGAN PAULY: Federal regulations that bar colleges from withholding transcripts for credits already paid for go into effect this summer. State lawmaker Delegate Betsy Carr also sponsored a bill this year to require universities to release transcripts of all credits, paid for or not, to a student's employer or prospective employer.

BETSY CARR (D – 78TH RICHMOND, VA): As a lawmaker, this is important so that we get our students graduating and into the workforce and sometimes student debt to the institutions would hold them back and they couldn't be able to move forward in the way that they would like to to get their jobs, and one piece of that is not being able to get their transcripts from an institution because of direct debt to the institution.

MEGAN PAULY: Carr's legislation also prohibits transcript withholding for debts under $500 and under $1,000 for Pell Grant recipients, and also when a student has set up a payment plan and made three consecutive payments. The bill has strong support and passed the Senate unanimously. Only two lawmakers opposed it.

BETSY CARR: Everybody was on board with this, everybody. No one is kind of holding back on this 'cause everybody wants our students to move forward and to become who they can become, so I think that everybody will be cooperating to make this happen.

MEGAN PAULY: Salona Perkins testified in the General Assembly in support of the bill in 2022. Even though Perkins couldn't get her transcript, she hopes the legislation will help other students who are stuck in similar predicaments and she says her experience advocating for Delegate Carr's legislation inspired her to focus her career on the legal profession.

SALONA PERKINS: I do want to succeed in school, whether I stop here at paralegal studies or I go to that university and continue law, I do want to succeed. I feel like I cannot give up what I want out of life. I feel like I have to work for it and that's the only way it's going to happen if it's if I keep going.

MEGAN PAULY: For Yvonne Evans, the student loans that have been hanging over her head for over 30 years still cause sleepless nights.

YVONNE EVANS: I have lost so much sleep with this loan and it just look like God has given me some kind of relief as to stop worrying 'cause I really have lost a lot of sleep worrying about this loan and I just don't worry about it anymore. If I want to continue to get older, then I need to stop worrying.

MEGAN PAULY: But Evans is not worried about her grandson.

YVONNE EVANS: I am very, very proud of my grandson. My second grandchild is going to college for engineering and he won't have to pay anything, nothing at all, and I am so happy about it. He's got several scholarships and I am so proud of him.


Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.
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