Crush­ing debt

SUI­CIDE Man who owed as much as $100,000 felt trapped by his stu­dent loans and ‘lower than low’ that he had no job

Chicago Sun-Times - - METRO - BY DAVE NEWBART

“You are part of the rea­son he took his own life.

JAN YODER

Jan Yoder was pre­par­ing for her son’s funeral when the phone rang. It was an­other stu­dent loan col­lec­tor want­ing to know when her son would pay up.

Her terse re­sponse: Ja­son is dead. And, she said, “You are part of the rea­son he took his own life.’’

It was those calls and the bur­den of crush­ing debt, she says, that led her de­pressed son to take the dras­tic ac­tion of killing him­self late last month. He did so in the Illi­nois State Univer­sity chem­istry build­ing in Nor­mal — in the very lab where he did his re­search to earn his mas­ter’s de­gree.

“It made him feel lower than low to tell some­body ev­ery week, ‘I don’t have a job,’ ” his mother says now. “It drags you down. You feel like noth­ing.’’

Ja­son, 35, owed more than $65,000, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Stu­dent Loan Data Ser­vice. But it’s pos­si­ble his debt was higher be­cause that fig­ure only in­cludes gov­ern­ment-backed loans and not the high-in­ter­est private loans stu­dents in­creas­ingly rely on. He told fam­ily mem­bers his debt had grown to more than $100,000.

While rel­a­tives ac­knowl­edge Yoder had fought de­pres­sion on and off for years, ad­vo­cates for stu­dent bor­row­ers say his case is an­other ex­am­ple of a stu­dent feel­ing trapped by stu­dent debt. Un­like most other debt, the loans can­not, by law, be dis­charged through bank­ruptcy, and col­lec­tion agen­cies have ex­tra­or­di­nary pow­ers to col­lect them by gar­nishee­ing wages or even So­cial Se­cu­rity ben­e­fits.

“When it gets to the point where peo­ple are flee­ing the coun­try, go­ing off the grid or tak­ing their own lives, you know some­thing has gone hor­ri­bly wrong,’’ said Alan Collinge, founder of Stu­dent Loan Jus­tice, which is push­ing to change stu­dent lend­ing laws.

The av­er­age debt load for grad­u­ate stu­dents in all fields na­tion­wide

to a stu­dent loan col­lec­tor who called af­ter her son’s sui­cide

climbed by 150 per­cent in the last decade to $37,600 in 2004, ac­cord­ing to the Project on Stu­dent Debt.

‘When are you go­ing to pay?’

At ISU, the av­er­age debt for un­der­grad­u­ates is $16,000, a 15 per­cent in­crease in the last five years, al­though some stu­dents leave with bills as high as $60,000. ISU does not track grad­u­ate stu­dent debt.

Jon Gu­den­rath, ISU’s as­so­ci­ate di­rec­tor of fi­nan­cial aid, said coun­selors talk to stu­dents about tak­ing on too much debt, but “in the end it’s the stu­dent’s choice. We can’t say, ‘You can’t have this [loan].’ ”

ISU chem­istry Pro­fes­sor John Hansen said Yoder did “very well’’ in school but rarely spoke of his debt. How­ever, it took him sev­eral years to fin­ish his mas­ter’s the­sis in chem­istry, in­creas­ing his loan to­tal.

When he grad­u­ated in sum­mer 2006, he was un­able to find a job de­spite send­ing out dozens of re­sumes. Mean­while, he watched his loan bal­ance grow. He moved back in with his mom, who lives in a small trailer home in Nor­mal.

When the col­lec­tors called, they asked him, “ ‘When are you go­ing to pay? Can’t you get your mom to sell her house? Couldn’t you sell your car?’ ” ac­cord­ing to his fam­ily.

Al­though Ja­son helped set up a fledg­ling tea room his mother runs with her sis­ters, he was wary of tak­ing a job out­side of his field be­cause he feared his wages would be gar­nisheed. That could tip po­ten­tial em­ploy­ers to his credit woes. Collinge said many em­ploy­ers won’t hire peo­ple with bad credit.

Late last month, in the mid­dle of the night, Yoder ap­par­ently let him­self into the ISU lab. Then he hooked up a tube to a nitro­gen valve and ran it inside a plas­tic bag around his head, ac­cord­ing to sources familiar with the scene. He was pro­nounced dead of ap­par­ent as­phyx­i­a­tion later that morn­ing.

Af­ter his death, at least two phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal firms at­tempted to con­tact him about job open­ings, Jan Yoder said.

JAMEY DAVIDSMEYER~DAILY VIDETTE

Jan Yoder holds pho­tos of her son Ja­son in the Sis­ters Vic­to­rian Tea Room in Nor­mal that he helped her set up. She said his lack of a job “made him feel lower than low.”

Ja­son Yoder is shown with his niece Olivia in an un­dated fam­ily photo.

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