- Lori Harrell owes $155,000 in student debt.
- After a 20-year career as a teacher, she doesn't know how she'll afford to retire.
- She's been denied by two federal loan forgiveness programs for teachers.
Lori Harrell, 60, is a teacher and has a bachelor's degree in education as well as two master's degrees — but she advised her son not to go to college.
"When I was coming up, parents said you either go to school or get a job, so I went to school," she told Insider. "The advice I gave him was that you don't really need to go to school unless you know exactly what you want to go for."
Harrell, who was a public school teacher in New York for over 20 years, is approaching retirement. But with $155,000 in student loan debt, she doesn't know how she can afford to go through with it.
Currently, she works as a special education teacher at Wyoming Correctional Facility in Attica, where she's been for four years. She previously taught special education classes for middle and high school students, but switched to a government job so that she would have a better pension and better benefits like health insurance when she retired.
But even as she's made plans to retire over the past few years, her debt remains a 155,000-pound elephant in the room. A few years ago, she consolidated her mix of federal and private loans. She also started an income-based repayment plan, which determined how much she would owe per month based on her salary. She paid about $300 a month before the student loan payment pause at the start of the pandemic. Those payments mostly went toward interest and barely altered her principal amount.
Many Americans are going through the same thing as Harrell, having to adapt their plans for retirement, housing, and healthcare based on their student debt totals. Those who qualify for public service forgiveness like Harrell often have high hopes for relief after 20 years of payments, but face prohibitive bureaucratic obstacles or are turned away altogether.
"I'm at the point where I'm going to retire in two years, and I don't know how I'm going to manage," Harrell said. "I'll die with that debt."
'Retired people shouldn't have student debt'
Harrell said that she's had a lot of trouble keeping up with her debt over the past few decades — and the loans themselves were prohibitive.
"When I was raising my son as a single parent, it was about taking care of the rent, food, him, his activities, and those kinds of things," she said. "It never got to the place where I couldn't feed him or myself, but it was hard."
Harrell never defaulted on her loans, she said, but she was late often. Borrowers seeking income-based repayment, which is almost exclusively available to people with federal debt, often report that the monthly payment amount offered by loan companies isn't realistic.
Early in her career, Harrell said, student loan companies estimated her salary — which determined her monthly payments — to be $30,000 more than she was actually making. Now, decades later, she still isn't making that amount.
Harrell was among those who were deemed ineligible for forgiveness through the Teacher Loan Forgiveness program, because she's has student loans since 1979, outside of the initial eligibility window of 1998.
She was also turned away from public service loan forgiveness through the federal government. Prior to the Biden Administration, 98% of borrowers who applied for PSLF were denied due to paperwork errors and student-loan company mismanagement of the program. Because of that, the Education Department announced reforms to the program, including a waiver through October 31, 2022 that allows any prior payments, including those previously deemed ineligible, to count toward loan forgiveness progress.
Harrell applied again a few months ago once the Biden administration implemented its reforms, but she hasn't heard back yet.
In the meantime, she said she's considering selling off assets that belonged to her mother, who passed away a few years ago, in order to keep up with her debt.
The debt "is going to be an issue when I have a reduced income," she said of retirement. "I do think about selling the house... and that's going to be part of my plan within the next couple of years."