Debt and buried: US students slaves to their loans

The calm after the storm – just a handful of “occupiers” gathered in New York's Zuccotti Park, after police moved in to clear the site Thursday. Those remaining hope to draw attention to the plight of groups like college students, crippled with debt.

­Removing the camp had triggered a so-called day of action from the demonstrators, which spiraled into clashes with officers and led to hundreds of arrests. Authorities are hoping the two-month campaign has run out of steam, but defiant protesters say it is far from over.

The movement is attracting young people who are having trouble paying back their student loans, while struggling to make ends meet.

The image of 23-year-old Stef Gray tells of the widespread debt epidemic among college graduates, desperate to find work.

“Right now, I can’t even get a job cleaning toilets for minimum wage. I’ve tried a local motel, there’s nothing,” she told RT. “I'm just begging for any sort of work. Walking around, applying to Starbucks, McDonald’s, like I did when I was 17. And it makes me think: ‘Wow, why did I even go to college if this is what it's ending up with?’”

Armed with a Master’s degree in geography and US$130,000 in student debt, Gray collects $200 in monthly food stamps and sells text books on eBay to make extra cash.

“I’m approximately two months behind on my rent. I have no idea how to catch up,” she continues. “I lie awake at night completely freaking out about this. I’m frightened about being evicted.”

But no matter how much she loses, she is obligated to keep paying back her private loan to Sallie Mae, America’s largest private lender.

“I took out $40,000 in loans and I'm already owing $65,000, and I’ve just graduated a couple of months ago,” Stef added. “Twenty-five thousand dollars in interest came out of nowhere.”

Unlike federal loans, private lenders can adjust interest rates as high as lenders want and do not offer consumer protection.

“Income-based repayment is not an option with any private loans. Neither is deferment for the unemployed,” the recent graduate went on to explain. “For example right now, I'm desperately looking for work and Sallie Mae wants payments. They want me to pay about $700 a month.”

Gray is one of millions of Americans saddled and haunted by student debt. But very few have any other option. Tuition costs have risen 600 per cent since 1980. The top Ivy League colleges cost $50,000 per year.

Stef Gray is pioneering Occupy Student Debt, a movement calling for US congress to reinstate consumer protection in order to keep private lenders from pushing millions of Americans into default.

“It’s going to be default after default, after default. And once you default, that’s a black mark on your credit report for life, because student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy,” Stef Gray explains. “There was legislation that was taken right away in 2005 that Sallie Mae lobbied for, spending millions upon millions on lobbyists."

Student loan debt in the US is nearing one trillion dollars, reportedly already surpassing the nation’s credit card debt. A generation of Americans find themselves enslaved to banks and armed with a diploma that no longer guarantees a job.