There’s nothing quite like receiving a warrant for your arrest in the mail. That’s what I discovered this May when a letter was delivered to my Boston apartment.
I’ve never been arrested before (excluding that close call in my sophomore year of college) so seeing the words “ARREST WARRANT” stamped in big bold letters across a page sent me into a momentary panic. When I reoriented myself enough to read the rest of the letter, a wave of confusion washed over me. All the letter explained was that there was a civil warrant out for my arrest and to call the sheriff for more information. I hadn’t done anything that would explain a warrant.
When I called the sheriff’s department, he explained to me what was going on. The warrant was related to my unpaid student loans from Boston University, in a last effort from the collections company to force me to appear in court and to make payments. If I didn’t address the warrant, the danger of being arrested could become very, very real.
According to an American Civil Liberties Union report earlier this year, “in 44 states, local judges are authorized to issue arrest warrants for debtors who fail to make post-judgment appearances in court or fail to provide information about their finances.” While all U.S. states prohibit imprisonment for civil debt, you can still “face contempt citations and jail for disobeying court orders designed to satisfy money judgments.” This is what happened in my case.
Almost 10 years ago, I was a bright-eyed, 18-year-old high school senior, and Boston University was the school of my dreams. I was enamored with the crimson colors and terrier insignia and, despite the hefty yearly price tag of $54,000, I knew BU was where I wanted to go. I got a decent scholarship package and signed my life away on student loans to cover the remaining tuition.
But after starting at BU, I quickly grew to hate it. The population of students of color was abysmally low, and I found myself constantly confronted with racial microaggressions. After a mental health crisis, I had to withdraw my second year of attendance, carrying with me a debt for a degree I never obtained.
Six months after withdrawal, Boston University promptly began hunting me down to collect on the debt. While I was able to defer for a year after dropping out, once I got a better paying job, repayment became necessary. The lowest I could get the payments down to was $150 a month, which was roughly a 1/10 of what I was making. This was in addition to my federal student loans which cost me another $200 a month.
On top of that, I was working as an independent contractor and had to pay taxes out of pocket. A series of financial pitfalls, including a car accident, while living hand to mouth caused me to become delinquent on my loan. And once that happened, the account went into collections. My delinquent loan also meant that I couldn’t get financial aid for school. (I had tried to re-enroll at a less expensive, public state school after leaving BU.)
When I set up a repayment plan in 2017 to try to pay off my delinquent loan, my monthly payments were too low and not considered “sufficient” enough for the lender. That’s when they took me to court for the first time to force me to pay a larger amount.
I was out of the country at the time of the first court date and when I returned, I received a judgment letter in the mail. The court had ruled in the favor of the lender. I continued to try to pay what I could to keep up, but fell behind.
My story isn’t at all uncommon.
An estimated 44.2 million Americans live underneath the weighty thumb of student loans. The average monthly student loan payment is a hefty $351. When we look at students of color who attend college, the numbers get worse.
Black students who get their bachelor’s degree owe on average twice as much as their white counterparts. Four years after graduation, with accruing interest, black students owe on average nearly $53,000. Black and Latino students are also more likely to become delinquent on student loan repayments due to a number of factors such as lack of generational wealth, predatory loan conditions and the disparity in job acquisition and earnings after attending college.
Black people are attending college at an astounding rate. In the past decade, the number of Black students going to college rose 10 to 15 percent. But doesn’t that mean we’re also accruing more crippling loan debt that could impact our future cash flow?
What I didn’t know when completing my financial aid package was that the loan I received from Boston University was private. Private student loan debt volume hit $7.8 billion from 2014 to 2015 and is only growing. While federal student loans have base limitations, private lenders have the ability to not only charge higher interest rates but also to sue you for repayments.
The government can drag its feet prosecuting student loan delinquencies because there is no statute of limitations. However, private lenders only have six years (depending on what state) after your last payment to get their money back from you and can sue you and even put out a warrant for your arrest, forcing you to court.
Receiving a warrant isn’t something a lot of people with student loans will experience. It’s a last resort of a private loan lender attempting to get back the sum owed. But many more will experience being taken to court over unpaid debt. Boston University, a private institution that recorded over $157 million in operating reserves in 2017, has the power and the money to weaponize the legal system to intimidate cash-poor students into paying back old loans. So do many of these higher education institutions and loan lenders. In the past five years, the number of lenders taking borrowers to court over delinquent student loans has increased significantly.
Private lenders will often fail to be forthcoming about procedural matters. My loan went into default over six years ago ― it should be past the statute of limitations for collections. But because I agreed to that repayment plan over a year ago, the statute starts over again. This technique is very common among private lenders to trick people into claiming debt that may be old or out of statute. As soon as you admit to owing the debt or you agree to pay it back, you take responsibility for that debt all over again.
In 2017 alone, over 10,000 complaints were filed against a student loan provider. Last year, Navient (formerly of Sallie Mae), the largest leading private student loan lenders, was sued for $4 billion in abused interest charges and was accused of pushing predatory loans and misleading subprime interest lending. There’s an enormous market to make astounding profits in the private student loan lending field ― it is, after all, a $200 billion industry.
To avoid an actual arrest, I had to not only agree to appear in court, but I also had to pay a $500 down payment on the loan. I also had to agree to an increased $200 a month so the collection company would call the sheriff and tell him to take my warrant off the table.
My court date is for later in the summer but in the meantime, I’m struggling to make monthly payments. Additionally, in the time the loan was delinquent, it accrued over $1,200 in interest ― my payments have barely even scratched the surface of the full amount. But if I fail to make payments, the warrant for my arrest is a threat that can become a reality once again.
Why is it, in a day and age when more and more brown and black people are accessing higher education, that a bachelor’s degree means less and less yet costs exponentially more than it did 20 years ago? Why has education been lauded as a partial solution to our society’s ills yet comes at the price of inheriting crippling, lifelong debt? Why are these institutions allowed to weaponize a broken legal system to persecute students who are already monetarily marginalized?
As long as profit is valued over knowledge and as long as academic institutions continue to be the gatekeepers of that knowledge, our education system will remain broken. If we are truly a society that sees education as a tool for upward mobility, why do we attach such a steep price to that education?
Knowledge should not come with a price tag or an arrest warrant.