SUICIDE Man who owed as much as $100,000 felt trapped by his student loans and ‘lower than low’ that he had no job
“You are part of the reason he took his own life.
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.
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.