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‘Going to college ruined my life.’ I have $85K in student loan debt for my ‘useless degree’ but only make $16 per hour. How can I cope?

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I would give anything to go back and not go to college at all. It wasn’t worth it.

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Question: I am 32 and got my associates degree in occupational therapy. I owe $25,000 in federal student loans, and $60,000 in private loans with high interest — despite having my mom as a co-signer. I went to a great college: It was private and costly, but I have learning challenges they were able to accommodate. But I will never forget back in the beginning of 2018, my professors told me that by the time my classmates and I graduated, we would likely struggle to get jobs because of changes in the profession. Well, they were right. And of course after I took out these huge loans, it was too late to fix it.

I graduated, the pandemic hit, jobs were scarce, and despite looking and applying for whatever I could for almost two years, it didn’t matter. So now I’m going on eight years at my job in a group home where I’m paid $16 an hour. I work over 50 hours a week sometimes, and also support a severely disabled adult who is 100% financially dependent on me. I’m barely making it paycheck to paycheck as it is.

I feel like I will never be able to afford my payments, even if I find higher-paying work. I feel like I have a useless degree at this point. I would give anything to go back and not go to college at all. It wasn’t worth it. My credit score plummeted from missing one payment, and I already have a mountain of other bills I owe to credit cards and medical bills. I literally am trapped by these loans. I have no payment options that would ever pay them off and refinancing is not an option because my credit score is so low. (Note: For those with private loans and a good credit score, these are the lowest student loan refinancing rates you might be able to qualify for.) I can’t afford legal help. I’m trapped. Going to college ruined my life.

Answer: Private student loan borrowers, unfortunately, have fewer safety nets than those with federal student loans, but the first step you should take with your private loans is to contact your lender about temporarily lowering your payments or negotiating a new repayment timeline, pros say.

That may or may not provide the relief you need, so pros say to look elsewhere too. “You could benefit from loan-specific advice from The Institute of Student Loan Advisors (TISLA) or from one-on-one financial counseling by someone certified by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC),” says Anna Helhoski, student loan expert at NerdWallet. TISLA is a non-profit organization that offers free advice for student loan borrowers and the NFCC is a non-profit financial counseling organization that offers debt management plans, student loan counseling, credit report reviews and more.

Have a question about getting out of student loan or other debt? Email chill@marketwatch.com.

Andrew Pentis, certified student loan counselor and higher education finance expert at Student Loan Hero, also says it’s wise to consider the option of enrolling in a debt management plan with the assistance of a nonprofit, low-fee credit counseling agency. “This way, they will have one monthly payment instead of several and could even see a reduction in their interest rates,” says Pentis. “On the downside, a debt management plan would suspend their ability to borrow during that three-to-five-year span, and it would take even longer after the fact to build a positive credit file,” says Pentis.

For your federal student loans, look at an income-driven repayment plan (you can see the four types here), which “sets your monthly student loan payment at an amount that is intended to be affordable based on your income and family size,” the government notes. Then, often, after 20-25 years, depending on the plan, the loans will be forgiven.

Something else to consider is the Borrower Defense Loan Discharge Program for federal loans, which helps borrowers who were misled by their schools. “If the reader believes that their occupational therapy school misled her about her job prospects, before the professor pointed out reality, and she has some documentation to that effect, it could be possible to discharge some or all of the federal loan debt,” says Pentis. Borrower Defense rules have ebbed and flowed with every change in the Department of Education, but the most recent changes make it easier for distressed borrowers to qualify, specifically because in March 2021, the Department announced it would be streamlining the program’s approval process to deliver $1 billion dollars in relief to 72,000 borrowers.

It’s also worth noting that President Biden recently extended the pause on federal loans until at least Aug. 31.

Bankruptcy may be an option, but you would have to find a way to afford the lawyer, and student loan debt is often very hard to discharge in bankruptcy. Because funds are already tight, you may want to ask friends or family to help pay a lawyer’s fees, work out a payment plan with an attorney, or even seek out a lawyer who practices pro bono. But Pentis says, “Bankruptcy might not be the fresh start that it’s often imagined to be, as it’s not guaranteed to discharge 100% of a consumer’s debt. It will also severely damage their credit report and score for years to come.” While not the ideal solution, ultimately, if your low income, dependent responsibilities, and medical strains make it impossible to pay off a student loan and any other debt, bankruptcy could yield some measure of much-needed relief.

Bottom line: “There’s no quick fix or an easy solution, unfortunately — but there are resources to help you cope and keep afloat,” says Helhoski.

Questions edited for clarity and brevity.

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