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How New Jersey Has Embraced 'State-Sanctioned Loan-Sharking' to Students

New Jersey has the country’s largest state-based student loan program. It’s also incredibly unforgiving. For this ProPublica Podcast, I talked with our own Annie Waldman about her story on what one bankruptcy attorney described at New Jersey’s “state-sanctioned loan sharking.” Waldman found one mother who has been required to keep paying off her son’s loans even after he was murdered.

When Chris Gonzalez fell behind on his loans after he got non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, New Jersey sued him and seized his state tax refund. (Angel Valentin for The New York Times)

Here are a few highlights from our conversation.

On how easy it is for families to take out large sums of money through New Jersey’s student loan program:

Waldman: One thing that was consistent with everybody that I spoke with is that nobody actually spoke with somebody on the phone from this agency and gave them their situation. This is how much money my family makes. This is what I'm majoring in. This is what I want to do with my life. I didn't hear that there was really any direct communication between the agency and the students in that way. A lot of people told me that they applied for these loans online. It took them 15 minutes to fill up the application, and within an hour they were approved.

On the state’s refusal to forgive the debt of one young man, instead leaving his mom stuck with monthly bills for years after his death:

Waldman: She sent in her tax information and her husband’s. They don't make a lot of money. They're a middle class family. She's a nanny part-time. She cleans houses part-time. Her husband is a landscaper. They are by no means rolling in dough. She sent in this information and the state agency sent her a letter back and said, "We looked at it, your information and you don't fit the criteria for forgiveness. We're going to continue to send you bills," which she was shocked. She was shocked and confused. This is a state agency. How could they do this to her family? To this day, she's been continuing to pay off his loans. She's made 17 payments since he died at $180 a month. Then she'll continue to do that for the next 6 or 7 years.

On the power of the state behind the loans:

Waldman: [T]he one thing that I think was so shocking for me was that these loans – even though they're literally private loans … the agency has the powers of the state when they want to compel families to pay, which means that they can garnish their wages. They can seize your wages without a court judgment even before you default on your loans. They can also suspend any kind of professional license or revoke any kind of professional license if you default. For example if you're a doctor, if you're a nurse, you can have your license taken away. They can also take away your lottery winnings. If you win more than $1,000, they can take away your lottery winnings and on top of that, they can also take away your state tax return, which a lot of families will rely on at the end of the year.

Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more, read Waldman's piece, New Jersey’s Student Loan Program is ‘State-Sanctioned Loan-Sharking’.

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