scorecardMeet a repairman with $37,000 in student debt who's struggling to pay it off and handle medical bills. He's pleading to be included in Biden's new relief plan.
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Meet a repairman with $37,000 in student debt who's struggling to pay it off and handle medical bills. He's pleading to be included in Biden's new relief plan.

Ayelet Sheffey   

Meet a repairman with $37,000 in student debt who's struggling to pay it off and handle medical bills. He's pleading to be included in Biden's new relief plan.
PolicyPolicy4 min read
  • Chris Fleshren, 63, is struggling to afford student-loan payments on top of hefty medical bills.
  • He hopes he's included in Biden's next attempt at student-loan forgiveness.

Chris Fleshren is just a few years away from retirement, and he's sick of dealing with the "bureaucratic" student-loan industry.

When Fleshren, 63, graduated in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in Geographic Information Systems, he did everything he could to get a job in that field — from sending out resumes, going to job fairs, and actively monitoring job boards — but he has not been able to land steady employment using his degree and now works as a kitchen equipment repairman.

After getting an associate's degree in 1983 and working as an airline mechanic for years, Fleshren said that the airline work wasn't stable, and he saw school as an opportunity to further his career and earn a higher income.

"I tried to better myself trying to get an education, trying to get somewhere, but apparently I did it too late in life," he told Insider. "I have no criminal history, nothing but good employment history, and I just couldn't get a job."

Now, Fleshren has just over $37,000 in student debt from his bachelor's degree, according to documents reviewed by Insider, and while he's been able to pay his bill since monthly federal student-loan payments resumed in October, he said he's not sure how much longer he can afford to do so while also juggling thousands of dollars in medical bills for his wife's care.

Millions of borrowers are now dealing with a monthly bill they haven't paid in over three years due to the pandemic pause on student-loan payments. President Joe Biden's Education Department has implemented a 12-month "on-ramp" period during which it won't actively report any missed payments to credit agencies, along with a new SAVE income-driven repayment plan intended to lower borrowers' monthly payments.

However, that relief isn't enough for some borrowers as they struggle to afford basic necessities and other forms of debt.

"I have not defaulted. I have been able to stay up to date on the payments. But I'm not convinced in the least that I'm going to be able to continue to do that," Fleshren said.

"I have about two months worth of bills, maybe three months worth of bills, in my checking account and we have no savings," he continued. "I'm a year or two away from retirement. Are they going to make me pay a fourth of my Social Security to pay off my student loans when I'm 66 years old?"

'There's just too many payments'

The Education Department is currently in the process of crafting its new plan for student-loan forgiveness. At the end of June, the Supreme Court struck down the department's first attempt at broad debt relief. Now, it's using the Higher Education Act of 1965 to tailor a new relief plan that will be more narrow than the first time around.

The law requires the department to undergo a process called negotiated rulemaking, which includes a series of negotiation sessions and period of public comment before publishing the final rule. The department recently asked negotiators to help it define what would qualify as "hardship" for borrowers to get relief, and Fleshren hopes his situation meets the criteria.

"I have to pay for my wife's car, plus food, plus utilities, plus the mortgage, plus the car payment," Fleshren said. "There's just too many payments and if I don't qualify for hardship, I just don't know what I'm going to do."

Negotiators floated a range of ideas for who might qualify for hardship, including Pell Grant recipients, borrowers with a disability, or those dealing with significant childcare or medical expenses. The negotiating committee will meet one more time in December to provide input on Biden's next attempt at relief, and Fleshren said giving all his spare time to caring for his wife, "which keeps me from getting another job to help pay my loans and debts, should be factored in."

"They should consider significant medical bills, if there's significant medical hardship in the household where I'd have to pay Medicaid to get my wife care in addition to the $15,000 in surgical bills that are still outstanding," he said.

'The stress of it all is just ridiculous'

Along with the financial burden his student debt brings, Fleshren also said he's frustrated with the challenges of simply communicating with his student-loan servicer, Nelnet. He said that every time he's sent an email to the company to get assistance with his repayment, he received the automatic response: there is high email and call volume, and Nelnet's ability to respond is delayed.

The hours-long hold times on the phone with customer service doesn't make matters easier.

"I've never gotten a response. It's just been crickets. Absolutely no response, no reply, and the stress of it all is just ridiculous," Fleshren said. "As far as I'm concerned, I should be allowed to not pay them until they respond. And I should not be penalized in any way for for not paying. They want their money, then talk to me about me paying you the money you want from me."

The poor customer service has been an issue across all federal servicers, and the Education Department is aware of the challenges borrowers have been facing. It most recently withheld October pay from another servicer, MOHELA, over failure to properly communicate billing information to borrowers. The department stressed it will take additional oversight measures if it finds other servicers are not performing their basic duties.

"I understand they want me to pay them and I'm willing to pay them," Fleshren said. "But I don't know if it's their ineptitude or lack of staffing. I don't know what the reason is for not talking to me. But if they're not going to communicate with me, why would I continue to put money down a black hole when I have an urgent issue that needs resolving?"