Some cosigners on the hook for their children’s student loans are seeing their credit scores and retirement funds plummet. So many are picking up the tuition tab.
Student loan debt isn’t just hurting a generation of college grads. It’s also crushing the financial futures of the parents who cosigned for their kids.
Susan Zambo, a 50-something mother of three from Ohio, had an excellent credit score in the 780s in 2010. Then she cosigned her son’s $9,000 Sallie Mae loans for college. He became addicted to painkillers and had to leave before earning his degree, but he’s still on the hook for that $9,000 — which is now more than $11,000 with interest and fees.
“We paid for a few years, but it didn’t make a dent,” Zambo told Moneyish. Now her credit score has plummeted to the 400s, but she’s got her own bills to pay before she can pick up her son’s.
“It’s emotionally draining. I feel like there is a rock around my neck. I haven’t attempted to buy a car or anything like that,” she said. “Calling each of these new lenders, and trying to negotiate a way out, takes a lot of time and stress. Short of winning the lottery, the only way they would ever get paid is to make payments every month. There really isn’t a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to the debt my son owes unless the loans are forgiven. No light at all.”
She’s far from the only parent who’s learned the hard way that cosigning a loan for her child comes with a cost. The U.S. is experiencing a $1.45 trillion student loan crisis, and 62.06% of parent cosigners revealed in a new LendEDU survey that their credit scores have dropped after cosigning on private student loans for their kids. And 40.31% said this has hurt their ability to qualify for a mortgage, auto loan, or other type of financing, and almost half (46.93%) say their children’s student debt is jeopardizing their retirement.
This supports a 2014 Citizens Financial Group survey that found 94% of parents with a kid in college felt burdened by their child’s education debt. Worse, around 50% did not have a plan to repay their child’s student loans. And a 2016 CreditCards.com cosigning survey also found that 28% of surveyed adults said their credit score was damaged because the person they co-signed for paid late or not at all, while 38% of co-signers had to pay some or all of the loan or credit card bill themselves, because the primary borrower did not.
“A lot of people misinterpret cosigning a loan. You’re not just a safety net. It’s not like when they miss a payment, they come to you and ask, ‘Hey, can you help me out this time?’” Mike Brown, a research analyst at LendEDU, told Moneyish. “You are an equal partner with the student loan borrower, so when they miss a payment, you miss a payment. And you can take a hit on your credit score, which has a trickle-down effect. Poor credit makes it harder to qualify for other financing, such as a mortgage, an auto loan or a better credit card.”
And while the number of parents who told LendEDU that they understood the cosigning risks increased 2% over last year, almost one-third (31.32%) still didn’t fully comprehend just what they were signing up for in trying to give their kids a college education.
Jane, a Bronx mother and marketer who withheld her last name, got a rude lesson in interest payments when she cosigned a $20,000 loan for her daughter, then 22, to study veterinary technology in Denver. Jane was covering the $284 monthly payments, herself, until her daughter said they could be deferred while she was still in school.
“So I stopped without realizing, stupidly, that the interest continued to accrue,” Jane, 50, told Moneyish. So a couple of years later – after her daughter had decided not to complete the program, after all – Jane looked at the loan, and saw she now owed $30,000.
“I started crying. I can remember the scene clearly: I’m sitting at my dining room table with my checkbook and just saying, ‘Oh my God! Oh my God!’” she said. She actually wrote a $30,000 check for the full amount on the spot, using savings and a bonus she had just received.
“I just didn’t think it would accumulate so fast,” she said. “I couldn’t let it go on any further, and I’m just grateful and lucky that I could pay it in full.”
While it can be almost impossible for a cosigner to disentangle herself from a loan, Brown offered some suggestions for parents trying to fix their finances in the wake of a shared loan pulling them down.
You can apply for a cosigner release. The Catch-22 is, you’re more likely to get this if your child is actually making his or her payments on time. “When the borrower has a successful history of repayment while they have the cosigner, the cosigner can go to the lender and say, ‘My daughter has been clearly able to handle the loan. I’d like to be released as a cosigner,’” Brown said, noting there was 5% increase in parents who successfully pulled that off over the past year.
Or your child can also try refinancing the loan (which also generally calls for having a good credit history and making enough money to meet the new loan’s monthly payments), or consolidating his loans under his name.
But bad news, parents: The surest bet is to help pay their tuition tab, and make sure those minimum monthly payments are met. “You can make payments as a cosigner, which mitigates most of the risk in terms of your child making late payments,” said Brown. About three-quarters of parents told LendEDU they had made a monthly payment for their child, an almost 10% increase from last year.
But despite the financial toll helping their kids pay for college has taken on them, most parents (65.60%) actually said that they would cosign for their children again.
“That was definitely one of the most surprising outcomes of this poll,” said Brown. “But it’s almost heartwarming to see that parents will do whatever it takes to provide for their children.”
Maureen, a mother of three in Texas who withheld her last name, cosigned her daughter’s loans for nursing school 20 years ago. “My credit score has suffered, as there have been times that the payments were late or missed,” she told Moneyish. “Do I regret cosigning? Absolutely not! I would do it again in a split second. I would do just anything to help my kids with their education.”
Jane agrees. “In hindsight, I might have given her a small personal loan, or maybe we would have taken out a smaller loan and given her six months to make sure this was what she really wanted to do,” she said. “But I think I would always be that parent that says, ‘I want to help you out.’”
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