How to handle insane financial/school situation
May 9, 2016 7:29 AM   Subscribe

I go to a good school on a merit scholarship, but I'm massively in debt because of past mistakes and everything depends on my doing well now. I'm fighting mental health problems, and if my GPA gets below 3.5, I stand to lose everything.

I'm 30 years old. When I was younger I went to a private college that I (foolishly) paid for with loans before dropping out.

I went to a community college, and I transferred to a really good university. Everything is paid for by merit scholarships, with a little left over to cover some expenses, plus work-study. Thanks to school I have health insurance, and I'm finally being treated for lifelong issues with severe depression and anxiety (although I don't think those diagnoses actually cover everything). My work-study job pays pretty well.

The problem is that I'm still coping with pretty severe mental health issues. The school work itself has become unbearable. I've been burning out for years and it just keeps getting worse and worse. And because I'm in school on a merit scholarship, I have to maintain a 3.5 GPA or I stand to lose everything. So I'm burning out even faster.

I'm desperate to take time off school for my mental health, but I'll immediately lose all my health insurance, my job, and - worst of all - all my debts will come due at once. Because on top of everything else, I'm $80,000 in debt. I made some bad decisions when I was younger, and now I'm $80,000 in debt without even a degree to show for it.

One of my loans, in particular, was totally predatory, but I was young and did't think I had any options. It was a $10,000 loan to cover tuition (with enough left over for ramen) with a ~12% interest rate (variable, of course). Six years later I owe $19,000 on it. Because I used up my grace period years ago (I was unemployed) they're expecting me to send in minimum payments while I'm on school breaks, $190 a month. That's just to cover interest, not principal. So not only am I $80k in debt, but it grows by a substantial amount every year.

I wish I could take a semester off school, or drop out entirely, but I'd lose my job and I'd have to start repaying all of my debts. The minimum payments for everything would be around $400-500. I can't risk defaulting because I cosigned with someone at one point, and they're on a fixed income now.

(God, and on top of all that, there's a debt on my credit report that I can't afford to pay off, so I guess I won't be buying a house any time soon.)

So, to summarize: I'm a 30 year old Junior in college burning out on the extreme pressure, but I don't have the option of taking any time off. I have to maintain a 3.5 GPA, or I could lose my scholarship and then I'll be forced to drop out. I'll lose my job and my health insurance (including my twice weekly mental health care), and then my $80,000 debt will come due immediately.

I hope I was able to describe my situation coherently. I've started taking pills and booze to try to cope, but obviously that doesn't help.

So... is there a way to navigate out of this mess, or am I truly screwed?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
First of all, BREATHE.

Second of all, you are so super brave for saying this out loud. Is there a faculty person you feel comfortable talking about this with?

If you want to just talk/vent, memail me.
posted by spunweb at 7:38 AM on May 9, 2016 [4 favorites]

I think there is a way out...but it may require going to school for a bit longer.

If you can lower the class load for a time, so you have some breathing room, and take some "gut" courses that you can do well in with less strenuous effort, that can keep you afloat. Do the absolute minimum in terms of course load and course type for at least a semester (or a year), and if that means you're going to have to take some extra time to graduate, well, that's what it means.

If that's still too much for you, then start looking into consolidation programs that can make your debts into one payment that you can negotiate. If this is all student loan debt, go to your school's student loan office and talk with someone there about your options.
posted by xingcat at 7:41 AM on May 9, 2016 [4 favorites]

You're putting too much pressure on yourself. You can still go to this college with a 3.2 and BE FINE. You may have to take out more loans. It's ok. You will nearly certainly be able to pay a percentage of your income towards your loans, instead of the full amount. Your are going to have to give them 15% of your income until your loans time out. It sucks, but you can make it work.

You can have a good life with a career you like with a GPA below 3.5. 100k in debt is not that different than 80k. This is not an all or nothing situation. You're doing just great in making progress on your degree. Don't be so hard on yourself. Black and white thinking goes with anxiety and can make things worse. Talk to your therapist about it. Hang in there.
posted by Kalmya at 7:43 AM on May 9, 2016 [5 favorites]

Is the entire $80,000 private loans, or is some of it federal? Because, if worst comes to worst and you need to take a leave of absence, you can apply for income-driven repayment on the federal loans. With no income, you're likely to have to pay little to nothing. Even with the private loans, while they are not obligated to do, really, anything for you, you can often gain a brief respite or some reduction in interest rate by calling them and repeating over and over that you can't pay and you don't think you'll be able to pay in the future. They will often put you in "forbearance," in which interest accumulates but you don't have to pay at the moment. Obviously not the best long-term solution, but if you just need a little time to breathe...
posted by praemunire at 7:45 AM on May 9, 2016

If that's still too much for you, then start looking into consolidation programs that can make your debts into one payment that you can negotiate.

If OP has mixed federal and private student loan debt, under no circumstances should OP do this. Consolidating federal and private debt means losing eligibility for income-driven repayment and other protections available to federal loan borrowers.

Also, even in the private realm, "debt consolidation" is usually a scam.
posted by praemunire at 7:47 AM on May 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

Can you go part-time? Even one class fewer a semester saves you 12 hours of class/study time a week. Some scholarships will allow that, and even more will allow that if it is medically necessary. Also if you have any non-required classes, you should take easy ones. (There will be people at your school who can tell you which they are, but typically they are intro-level courses that people in the major are not allowed to take for credit and which are not useful for premed.)
posted by jeather at 7:49 AM on May 9, 2016

I know you feel overwhelmed right now, but you're not alone. There are offices on campuses whose entire job is to help students like you. Especially since you say you are abusing pills and alcohol over this crisis, I think you need to start by taking care of you and heading to Counseling Services. But your second step should be the financial aid office: they've seen it all, and can help you figure out your best strategy for getting hold of your situation. You may even be able to consolidate your debt so that you can take better control of your situation.

You don't have to take this on alone, and it might be time to call in experts who have your back. Good luck to you.
posted by gerryblog at 8:18 AM on May 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

Talk to your school's student disability services person now, as well as an academic advisor. The work will still need to be done, however they can help you fine-tune a plan based on what is recommended by your mental health professional. Taking an incomplete, in one course or several, can be a plan, or if you need to reconsider the entire semester, there is often fine print in scholarships for dealing with one semester of struggle. You will need to read through the specifics, as enough do not.

Accommodations are not retroactive, so if you are not on-board with SDS, find them today.

Best wishes!
posted by childofTethys at 8:19 AM on May 9, 2016 [5 favorites]

I work in higher education.

I have never ever ever encountered a situation where someone lost everything in one semester. Usually, if a GPA dips below a required GPA for financial aid or scholarship issue, the next semester the student is placed on probation. I would be truly terribly surprised if your school differed from this norm. So I think in the first place you have more time than you think to kinda work with/on that.

Your first stop should be to your counselor on campus. Tell her all of this just so you can feel some immediate support for handling it. The second stop should be to your financial aid office to ask outright if there is a probation period for your particular scholarship and not just how those terms are written but how they are actually practiced. Your third stop should be either to your faculty individually or to your Dean of Students office to learn what options exist for you to get through this semester the best possible way you can. Is an incomplete or two an option for you? That would let you complete some coursework after the semester is over and may remove some of the immediate pressure you are feeling.

But in the end, you will still have to do the work. If you're not doing the work just because it's boring, you have to just power through it. It sucks. I've been there, but you just gotta get down and get it done --- just like household chores everyone hates. It's something you just have to do.

If you're not doing the work because of anxiety, then there is recourse -- what I've and others have said. Believe it or not, colleges want to help students do well. They really do. So if you need help to get your best done, then please go and ask for it. You really don't have to get through this all on your own, but you do have to be the one to speak up and ask for the help you need. You can do this.
posted by zizzle at 8:39 AM on May 9, 2016 [15 favorites]

You need to find out what resources exist for you on campus. Go to the counseling center first. The go to disability services. Then go to academic advising and/or the dean of students. It might take a few visits with different people, but eventually you're going to find someone that can help you. The resources are out there. We (collectively educators on campus) want you to finish and do well.
posted by k8t at 9:09 AM on May 9, 2016

I feel you. I was a straight-A student in college, but due to an overloaded work/school schedule and a bout of severe untreated depression, I had to take a "W" grade in two classes one semester (withdrawing halfway through). It was a hard decision and really humbling, but it was the right choice. Obviously I don't know the ins and outs of your particular university, but I want to n'th everyone who is saying that you might need to cut yourself a break and accept less-than-perfect. Whether that mean cutting back your class schedule to the minimum credits necessary to keep your scholarship (12?) and having one or two of those be "filler" easy classes, or figuring out a way to cut back work-study hours, or something else. Definitely talk to the school. Bring documentation from your psychiatrist of your diagnoses. Figure out what your options are and go from there.

If you choose the minimum-credit-hours and easy classes route, there is a chance that your scholarship may not cover your last semester or two. They may expect you to graduate in the "normal" time frame. You can talk to them about this too. You may qualify for need-based financial aid at that point. I don't know. But even if you have to take more loans for the last year, it will be better than having a complete breakdown and failing out now.

Finally, if you DO end up dropping out temporarily, you will almost certainly qualify for Medicaid as long as you are only working minimum hours. Get a retail or coffee shop job, and keep working on your mental health. Then get need-based financial aid and go back.

Just ideas. Good luck. Going to school while working and suffering mental health issues is excruciating.
posted by celtalitha at 12:57 PM on May 9, 2016

If you haven't already, start by talking to the folks at your Dean of Students office. They are likely to have good suggestions for you---and it's their job to help you!
posted by leahwrenn at 2:03 PM on May 9, 2016

Here are some things you can do, or check that you are doing:

1) Do you have a tutor for all your classes? If you don't, find one. Some universities offer group tutoring sessions for some classes. Other times, you may need to engage a graduate student (or similar) for private tutoring sessions. But in any case, get a tutor, and get the tutor to help you with all your class work and class assignments.

2) Do you have study groups? Do you have friends in your classes who can help you with schoolwork? Make friends, get study partners/groups. Work on homework assignments together, check answers for homework assignments together. Technology makes things WAY easier now (for collaboration) than it did when you went to college as a teenager. (e.g. you can take a picture of your homework and text it to your friend to check homework answers without needing to meet up in person)

3) Do you utilize all your TAs and professors' office hours as much as you can? If you don't, try to go as much as you can. For one thing, it allows them to have a personal connection with you (so at least, if they see you are struggling, they may give you some leeway for deadlines and quizzes/exams/grading). For another thing, they can explain the material to you if you are struggling with the material. If other students in your course don't use office hours much and it's just you and the professor/TA, it's like a free personal tutoring session.

4) Are you registered for easy classes? Find the easiest possible classes to take, and take them. You can look at reviews of courses (from previous years/students) online. Your college may also make course reviews public. So look through the reviews, see which courses have good reviews, identify the courses that the reviewers say are super easy, and take those. Try to take courses that go through material you already know, or skills you already have. (E.g. do you know another language besides English? Take 101 language classes in that language. Do you know some programming languages? Take 101 classes in programming. Did you study a certain topic/subject in community college? Take a class that covers that topic/subject, again.)

5) Do your classes complement each other? Similar to taking easy classes, your life will be made easier by taking classes that reinforce each other - that teach very similar or overlapping material (e.g. similar or identical readings/books, or similar quantitative methods etc). That way you are studying and covering MUCH less material overall per semester, but taking the same number of classes as a normal student.

I'm in (or have been in) a similar situation as you. These things helped me very concretely. Memail me more if you want to talk (at least we can gripe together lol). Don't give up; you can get that 3.5 GPA. You don't necessarily need to work harder and tire yourself more - you can work more strategically!
posted by aielen at 5:29 PM on May 9, 2016

Hi. I am a college teacher. If you're in current trouble with classes, go talk to your professors and ask for help. One thing for the upcoming term is to go to rate my professors and take classes with high easiness numbers.
posted by orsonet at 6:59 PM on May 9, 2016

Check with your student disability services office and see if you can get any kind of waiver to take a smaller number of units (note: I'm guessing you'd need a doctor's note or diagnosis of something for this). I have zero idea how that would affect your scholarship/financial situation, but it's an idea.

Also, if you end up totally tanking due to depression, an option in the future is to apply for a retroactive withdrawal that would wipe a semester's worth of bad grades off your record if approved. No guarantees on that, but that isn't something most people find out about until it's too late.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:56 PM on May 9, 2016

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