More than 40 million Americans hold $1.6 trillion in student debt. It’s a source of constant conversation: how they took on debt, whether college or graduate school was worth the cost, and how they manage aspirations and families while also juggling punishing loan payments.

Here are the stories of some Pennsylvania and New Jersey residents who are paying off school loans: an art student who self-published a book this year and is seeking a $100,000 grant for a dark film on student debt, a freshman legislator bringing attention to the issue in Harrisburg, a soon-to-be social worker, and a physical therapist paying off the cost of a doctorate degree and raising two young children.

'College fiscal suicide’

Joe Ovelman lived the dream of an art career in New York, renting rundown apartments and bartending. Greenwich Village and Chelsea galleries showed his photography, drawings, and video. “I had great critical success,” the 48-year-old North Philadelphia resident said. “People would kill for a full-page color [New York] Times review.” But "nobody was paying for it.”

Tired of living hand-to-mouth and without health insurance, the West Chester native attended an open house at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design in 2007. As he remembers it, Penn officials told him that if he earned a master’s of fine arts and gained teaching experience as an adjunct for two years, he would be hired as a faculty professor.

Penn’s “financial aid office did everything,” he said. "I just signed the paper. I had no income but someone gave me [a loan of] $100,000.”

Graduating in 2010, Ovelman taught as an adjunct at Delaware County Community College. He ran a Chester County nonprofit that taught job skills to those leaving prison. But he struggled even making interest payments on the student loans.

A faculty job didn’t materialize after two or three or four years. As his student debt climbed above $100,000, Ovelman contacted pro bono lawyers to see whether he could somehow reduce his debt. He believed that Penn "told me something that was not real” — a professor job at the end of the graduate-school rainbow. The lawyers took an interest in the case but eventually dropped him as a client because their law firms counted the university as a client in other legal matters.

Ovelman defaulted on his loans. There didn’t seem to be anything he could do — or so he thought.

Then two years ago, Ovelman struck up a conversation with a Temple University fine arts student at his graduate exhibition. As the talk quickly turned to the new graduate’s debt of $32,000, Ovelman decided to do something creative about the student debt crisis.

He applied for a $100,000 grant to make a film from the nonprofit group Creative Capital in New York. His proposal — one of 4,000 — has made it through the first round of reviews. He expects to hear by mid-October whether he made the second round. Creative Capital will select 40 winners for funding in 2020.

Using the screenplay that he submitted as part of his proposal, Ovelman self-published a book titled You I Seea phrase that Ovelman describes as a recognition and self-validation of someone’s struggle, in this case of student debt.

The drawing-filled book tells of a “student loan debt suicide challenge” to escape crushing loans. On the book’s cover, Ovelman uses the acronym U.I.C. as an abbreviation — and, he hopes, eventual social media hashtag — for “University Industrialized Complex.” The book is available on Amazon and at Giovanni’s Room in Center City.

“It’s cathartic,” Ovelman said of the projects. "I think I was duped. I think everyone’s being duped. I don’t understand how we can do this to our culture.” With a debt of $229,000 from the original $100,000 because of accrued unpaid interest and fees, he calls what’s going on "college fiscal suicide.”

Struggling middle

From knocking on thousands of doors in Springfield, Broomall, Morton Borough, and Radnor in a tight race in Pennsylvania’s 165th District in 2018, Jennifer O’Mara learned one thing: Student debt “is an issue that families are talking about."

O’Mara, 29, a Democrat, squeezed out a victory in the Republican stronghold last November, winning by slightly more than 500 votes.

And once in Harrisburg, O’Mara networked. She spoke with Sean Crampsie, the director of government relations with the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties, which represents 5,000 professors and coaches. Student debt is a big concern with his members because enrollment is declining with high tuition college costs, Crampsie told her. O’Mara spoke with younger members of the House who may have debt themselves or knew friends who did.

“No one seemed to be doing anything about student debt," O’Mara said. "So we decided why don’t we do something with it?”

O’Mara formed the House Student Debt Caucus with Rep. Meghan Schroeder (R., Bucks). The big topics for the caucus: improving financial literacy for college students, costs, predatory lending, and regulating for-profit schools.

In June, Soledad O’Brien aired a TV segment on her Matter of Fact news show about student debt in Pennsylvania and interviewed O’Mara, who also had an op-ed published in The Inquirer and other Pennsylvania newspapers.

“I had people from all across Pennsylvania write to me. I don’t think that Megan and I realized what a nerve we were hitting,” O’Mara said.

Calls flooded her office.

“We hear a lot of grandparents calling and saying they are paying the loans on their grandkids because they were co-signers,” O’Mara said.

O’Mara and the House Student Debt Caucus will hold a policy hearing on the issues at Cabrini College at 10 a.m., Oct. 16. The caucus also expects to plan a package of bills for 2020 later this fall. Top on its list: creating a student debt ombudsman who can look into concerns over predatory lending, educating students on debt and loans, and student-loan servicing issues.

House Democratic leaders also appointed O’Mara this summer to the new Higher Education Funding Commission to re-evaluate the formula that determines state funding for Temple, West Chester, Penn State, and other state-supported universities.

“The families struggling the most are in the middle,” O’Mara said. “I would say I am on [the commission] because I made such a big stink about student debt.”

And there is the irony to O’Mara’s focus on student debt in Harrisburg. She graduated from West Chester University in December 2011, with $36,000 in debt and as a certified teacher in social studies with a history major. But she couldn’t find a teaching job.

In early 2012, she went to work for the University of Pennsylvania in its fund-raising operations, which made her eligible for Public Student Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). Students in public-service jobs or those employed by nonprofit organizations can have federal loans wiped away if they make consistent monthly loan payments over a decade.

But the federal rules to qualify for PSLF are complex. And O’Mara learned after her election to the Pennsylvania House that she may not qualify as an elected lawmaker.

Pa. State Rep. Jennifer O'Mara in her office in Springfield earlier this year.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Pa. State Rep. Jennifer O'Mara in her office in Springfield earlier this year.

Quarter of her paycheck

Judith Max Palmer finished undergrad work in 1998 with $12,000 in loans, and paid for college with “tons of need-based grants," scholarships, and work-study.

"My undergrad had a great endowment. My payment was $385 per quarter and I paid it off after I’d moved to Philly. I made minimum payments for all that time, and I borrowed a couple grand from my brother to just close it out,” Palmer said.

The West Philadelphia political and criminal justice activist finished her first graduate degree in counseling in 2002 from Columbia University. Her debts totaled $40,000, with a minimum payment of $220 a month, and the debt payment grace period ended in 2003.

“I went into forbearance until starting a full-time job at Penn in 2014. Also, I was in temporary forbearance for a few months here and there when I was between jobs,” she said.

Palmer consolidated her loans in 2014 and enrolled in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness plan in 2015. Her current balance: $27,621.12.

“Of course, I could not retroactively apply any of the payments I made previously,” she said.

In September 2019, her monthly payment was recalculated, as it is every year, and rose from $215 a month to $575 a month — more than a quarter of her net income.

“I haven’t had a substantial change in income, so now I call them and argue to get on a different plan. The same thing happened last year. It’s just one more hassle to deal with [to] reduce it to a manageable payment. If I didn’t have an insanely cheap West Philly rowhouse mortgage, I would be screwed. If I didn’t have a job with a lot of down time that allows me to put up this fight, I would be screwed,” she said.

Palmer works at Penn because she wanted to go back to graduate school for social work but refused to take on student loan debt again, “so I’m not racking up debt but working full time and going to school part time, and definitely limits the activism I can do" in voter turnout and police oversight. "Also, I wanted to go to law school, but you can’t go to Penn Law part time, so I had to do social work school instead.”

Palmer, 42, said the debt kept out of reach life goals, such as having kids or starting a business.

“I was never able to build any savings. By the time I was ready to start a career in the profession I was educated for, the economy had tanked, and I wasn’t able to find anything. That’s why I went back to school for social work. It isn’t recession-proof, but it’s a lot more flexible. It’s just been a constant source of stress, starting out every month with that bill to cover, especially working a blue-collar job. I regret going to grad school every time I think about it, especially when I know that other countries have different ways of educating their citizens. I guess I should have emigrated, but I just thought things would work out differently.”

Judith Max Palmer, 42, is working full time and in graduate school at Penn for social work.
Judith Max Palmer, 42, is working full time and in graduate school at Penn for social work.

$114,000 and counting

A physical therapist with a doctorate degree — which is almost mandatory in her field — Bianca Gustin is paying off a starting debt balance of $140,000 in school loans. She deferred for six months and then met with a financial adviser, Chad Chubb, who helped her change her monthly payments.

“They were at $1,125 a month. I had a very high interest rate,” she recalled. Her degree from the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia paid other dividends: It’s where she met her husband.

A Turnersville resident, Gustin had loans serviced by FedLoan and AES, operated by the Pennsylvania state agency PHEAA, and with New Jersey’s HESSA.

“The total was close to $134,000 with a weighted interest rate of 7.49%. Two of her larger balance loans had rates just shy of 8%,” said Chubb, a certified student loan professional debt counselor and financial planner. “She was on track to be paid off in 18 years and three months.”

After analyzing her loans and goals, Chubb decided it was best to refinance to a private lender. The ultimate goal was to lower Gustin’s rate and also lower her years of repayment. Gustin ended up refinancing her student loans to SoFi for 6.74% for 15 years with a monthly payment of $1,183.

“The monthly payment increased by a small amount, but it knocked off three years and three months of payments,” she said. Her current balance: $114,000.

Gustin, 31, is happy with the way things have worked out. She’s working at a skilled nursing facility and is currently on maternity leave with her second child, but will return to work at year-end. Her first child’s day care costs $900 a month.

“Would I have loved for it to be cheaper? Yes. But I always wanted to go away to college. Personally, I‘m lucky enough to be in a field that had a good salary. I’m able to pay my loans. It’s hard when you rack up debt but you’re in a field that doesn’t pay. I met my husband there. I got married, it changed the course of my life. It’s a huge chunk of my paycheck every month. But it’s the way it is,” Gustin said.