Case Study on Student Loans – Hixson

The Choices Facing Hixson

Sometimes people wonder how their payments get out of control so quickly. And many people have a wrong idea about how interest rates on big loans work. This article is designed to help explain the choice one person made, as revealed in a bankruptcy case. This case is In re Hixson, 450 B.R. 9 (S.D.N.Y. 2011), Hixson tried to get rid of just some of his debt – the part represented by his ex-wife, who wasn’t paying, and never had paid, a cent on their joint debt.

Hixson graduated from the Julliard School of Music with a Ph.D. in clarinet in 1998. His student loans at the time were 91 thousand dollars and change. He was married to a woman about whom not much is said – but she had loans totalling about $47,500. That’s all we really know, so what follows is a mixture of guess-work and hypotheticals. But it is intended to be realistic and to show the situation the couple faced.

Let’s suppose that Hixson had several loans with an average interest rate of 7%. This is the way they’re done – every year is a different loan in most programs, and they can have different interest rates. Applying the loan calculator, this is what he faced, more or less. We’re going to guess that he had agreed to a ten-year payment plan. Using our favorite loan calculator (click here for an explanation of how to use it, if you need one), we plug in $91,000, interest at 7% and “120 payments” and we get…

He was on the hook for $1,056.59 per month. That’s pretty much, but if you have a pretty good job it would at least be possible. But who would want to? Hixson, whose degree was in clarinet, was probably counting on getting a university position. This apparently did not happen.

Now let’s consider his then-wife, who had about $47,500 in loans. We’ll just say they averaged 8% interest, and that she, too, was going to pay them over the course of ten years. Here’s what she was looking at:

She was on the hook for $576.31, so together the couple was looking at ten years of payments at a little over $1,600 per month. Again – possible if one or both were in teaching positions. We don’t know what her degree was in, or what it was. What we do know is that the couple didn’t like what they were facing, because they agreed to consolidate their loans. Let’s figure they got a slightly better rate by doing so. We’ll say that the rate on the consolidated loan was 6%, although again we emphasize we do not know what it really was. If that was so, and they kept their payment schedule to a “new” schedule of ten years, here’s what they faced:

Not much savings there, so it is possible we have got some of the numbers wrong. No matter, because what happened afterwards is really more important. In the seventeen months following this loan consolidation, Hixson made 12 payments of approximately $440 each. It isn’t clear why the payments were that size, and Hixson’s wife made no payments – then, or ever.

About 18 months after consolidating their debts, Hixson and his wife divorced. This means that they were both on the hook for the total amount due, but they were no longer married. It would appear from the case, though vaguely, that the ex-wife agreed to pay her loans, but that she never did. In any event, Hixson stopped paying, too, in December 2000. No payments were made until the Department of Education caught up with Hixson and began garnishing wages in October of 2004. They garnished him for between two hundred and six hundred dollars for a year before he declared bankruptcy. The DOE never made any attempt to collect from Hixson’s ex-wife. Hixson was not a clarinet professor – he was apparently a computer internet sales person.

After declaring bankruptcy, Hixson apparently stopped paying on the debt for another four years (although this isn’t clear). What is clear is that in December 2006, Hixson was facing a debt now totalling approximately $195,000. He tried to get it discharged.

At the time relevant to the case, Hixson was making about $40,000 take-home pay per year and living in NYC. His ex-wife had never paid a cent, and the DOE was after Hixson for it all. He faced two options: ten years of payments about $2100 per month (more than all of the money he had, after necessaries) or 21 years of $808/month payments. The bankruptcy court found that Hixson’s situation was not “undue hardship” that would allow any of the debt to be reduced. It also found that, because Hixson had not been making payments, he had not satisfied the “good-faith” test that the courts require for there to be any right to relief at all.

The Point of this Article

We do not know what Hixson did, or “how it all turned out.” We seriously doubt it turned out well for anybody other than the university which sold Hixson a nearly useless degree that took him at least six years to earn, cost whatever out of pocket (or in work) that Hixson had already paid before the case began, plus the $100,000 in loans Hixson got stuck with. Hixson’s total projected payments (not counting anything paid before the bankruptcy court’s ruling): about $350,000.  And these are after-tax dollars – so they likely imply a real cost more like $500,000.

After paying enough to buy a mansion, Hixson will, if he manages, be left with nothing but his degree. We simply wish to point out what a disaster this probably was for Hixson. Be very careful before taking on a student loan!

Link to a Loan Calculator

We have no connection to this calculator, but it will allow you to put in payment terms (number and interest rate) and determine how much money you could borrow; or it can help you take the loan principle and figure out how much you will have to pay – over a length of time you can set – to pay it off. In other words, this program lets you get a realistic handle on the amount of blood, sweat and tears your educational loan will cost. We hope it makes you take a hard look at the universities and their tuition rates.

 For Help with Student Loans

If you are either considering signing or co-signing for a student loan, or if you are at any stage in student loan repayment, you may be interested in our report on student loans.

For More on student loans and the probable political consequences, read Occupy Wall Street and Debt Jubilee.