(Photo: Courtesy of Nicole Jackson)
At 44 years old, Nicole Jackson says she has bigger concerns than the six-figure student loan debt that has shadowed her for the last 20 years.
Jackson, a Miami, Fla.-based family law attorney, gave up on ever paying off her $186,000 federal student loan balance years ago. At $1,600 per month, her monthly loan payments eclipsed her $1,200/month mortgage and she and her husband are raising three teenage daughters.
"The way I see it, I'm already screwed," Jackson told us. "I'd rather make sure my kids are OK. Unless I start making significantly more money [my situation] is not gonna change."
With the nation struggling under a $1 trillion student debt crisis, stories like Jackson's are nothing uncommon. For the first time ever, the national student loan default rate exceeds the credit card delinquency rate, and so long as student loans remain one of the few types of debt that can't be discharged in bankruptcy, chances are the situation won't improve any time soon.
At the beginning of her story, Jackson, a native New Yorker, was one of the lucky ones. Her father, a doctor, paid for a year of her undergraduate studies, leaving her free to dodge student loans for a while. And with a well-paying job at a Manhattan law firm, she had more than enough funds to finance the rest of her undergraduate studies.
But when Jackson decided to pursue her dream of becoming an attorney at the University of Miami, it became impossible to avoid taking on debt.
"My intention was to go back to work after my first year of law school," she said. "[But] I did so poorly that I didn't think I could [keep a job at the same time]. So that’s when I started borrowing money."
It was a costly decision. Jackson took out about $26,000 in federal loans for each year of law school and then another $20,000 in private loans to keep afloat while she studied for the bar exam.
She graduated in 1994 with more than $100,000 of debt. Within three years, she had one daughter, a surprise set of twins, and was earning less than $50,000 per year.
"It’s always been a struggle," she said. "I worked for the state of Florida most of my [career] and the most I was making was $50,000/year. With three kids, it wasn’t enough money."
So she, like many other borrowers, bought as much time as she could, starting by consolidating her federal student loans. Since she worked for the state, she was able to defer payments and declare financial hardship as well –– whatever it took to keep from defaulting.
"[My debt] is not going anywhere because I do not make enough money, not because I have just ignored it," she said.
"My debt is not going anywhere because I do not make enough money, not because I have just ignored it."
Her private loans took top priority. The payments were only $130/month, but since private lenders don't offer the same deferment options as federal, it was either pay or roll out the welcome mat for debt collectors.
Meanwhile, her federal loans ballooned. With an 8% interest rate, they appreciated even after she consolidated, growing from a principal balance of about $80,000 in 1994 to $186,000 today. Other than her home and a car payment, it's the only debt she carries to this day.
Eventually, her debt drove her back to New York, where she moved her family and took a lucrative job at a Manhattan law firm. She was finally able to start making federal loan payments, but the move took a toll on her family life.
"I was making six figures, working 13/14 hour days, and my kids were sad because I wasn’t around," she said. "I wanted the money but I didn't want my kids to be miserable. They were babies."
After two years, they packed up and headed back to Miami, where Jackson continued plugging away on whatever legal cases came her way. Exhausted with state work, she started her own firm in 2008 with the hope that she'd earn more and could finally begin chipping away at her loans.
Last year, she was able to enroll in an income-based repayment plan for her federal loan, a perk that private lenders don't offer. Her monthly payments were reduced to $74, though the prospect of paying $74/month on a $186,000 debt hasn't exactly made the burden seem any lighter.
For now, she has her eyes on her future –– namely, her daughters' futures. Her eldest will be in college in 2015, and Jackson devoted her savings to establish a prepaid college savings plan for all three of her kids.
"I’ve stressed to my daughter the importance of not borrowing any money. If she doesn't get a scholarship or there’s money that needs to be found somewhere, I’ll borrow it myself and I'll deal with it before I let her," she said. "I don't want my kids going into life with this over their heads."
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