By 2009, Alan Ens borrowed about $25,000 in federal loans and $75,000 in private loans to pay for his jazz guitar degree from University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
"Six months after I got out, (one lender) was like 'We need $600 a month. We do no forbearances, no deferments. We don't give you a lower payment,'" he says.
Four years later, Ens works for an after-school music program and has joined the nonprofit Student Debt Crisis, which advocates for higher-education reform. He has kept his federal loans in check but defaulted on some of the private loans, making his debt load about $110,000. To make matters worse, some of Ens' private loans were co-signed by his mother. One lender currently garnishes Ens' mother's wages, and Ens pays her back.
"I wish I had that information: If you have this degree, what generally do people make from it?" Ens says. "The (federal) government loan has been cool with deferments and forbearances and looking at my income. I don't know why I assumed that's what all the loans would do."
Unlike federal student loans that come with borrower protections such as deferment, forbearance, grace periods and income-based repayment options, private loans aren't required to offer any. Betsy Mayotte, director of regulatory compliance for American Student Assistance in Boston, says borrowers in trouble should call their lenders to find out if they're eligible for a lowered payment or other options. If that doesn't work, Mayotte says to investigate consolidating into a bigger loan with a longer repayment period, though this tactic may not be ideal for all borrowers. Also, if a borrower can get out of default, he may be able to release his co-signer.
"If the borrower makes a certain amount of consecutive on-time payments, a lot of times (private lenders) will check their credit again and release the co-signer," she says.