Buried In Student Loan Debt? Sis, Here's How You Take Your Life Back

Sonia 'The Student Loan Doctor' Lewis is the woman with the plan.


Let's face it. Many of us aren't strangers to student loan debt. Black students in particular are disproportionately impacted by it, with the average carrying the burden of $7,400 more than their white peers. And sis, it's not just those of us making an OK salary or even those of us living check to check who have to consider how to pay off student loans. Even "well-off" adults are borrowing more.

More Black women are also completing degrees, so there's the added aspect of more borrowing among us, especially when we come from majority-Black communities. Let's face it: The numbers support the fact that we will definitely do whatever it takes to finance our education and those of our children.

With that being said, nobody wants to be in debt. There's always that shadow of wage garnishment lurking and just the heavy mental burden of owing somebody that sits well with no one. (I know I'm not the only one with that nagging voice of a parent or grandparent in their head, saying, "Don't ever let people hold money over your head. You better pay your debts and keep your accounts in good standing!")


If you're among the thousands of us who have student loan debt, and you're trying to figure out the best plan of action, we've got you covered. Sonia Lewis, CEO of The Student Loan Doctor, started a coaching and consumer advocacy service after dealing with her own experience with debt. "I was broke, so I actually was just trying to help myself when I initially started. When I was going through my own journey, I took a financial literacy course at church, and I realized that everyone did not have the common knowledge of what to do about their student loans," she said.

After taking care of her debt, she began helping others, and word of mouth led to the growth of clients. The Philly entrepreneur, who spent a decade working in higher education and knew the ins and outs of admissions and financial aid, now has a network that includes six coaches and three admins. Below she offers the real tea on how you can set a plan for saying goodbye to student loan debt and hello to financial freedom.

Scenario 1: You're a new graduate and dealing with student loan debt for the first time.

Lewis: First, log into the student aid or private lender's Website and verify whether the information is correct. Did you borrow this amount? For example, there could be a duplication of loans for a certain semester, or let's say someone took a semester off [and they find that] they've still been charged. So, it's good to verify the information.

The second thing would be to look into your repayment options. What's really cool about the StudentAid.gov site is that it's been revamped recently. You can literally plug in your information and [find out your options]. A person could [consider], 'I make this much,' 'I take care of this many people,' 'I'm eligible for forgiveness,' or 'I'm about to apply for this type of job.' When we talk through these scenarios [with clients] it relieves stress because when calls start, everybody's shaking and nervous because [the debt] can be a lot of money. So just walking through it and letting them see what's available helps. It's really cool when the person feels comfortable to click through themselves via a Zoom call [and figure out] what they want to do.

At that point you're not pressured to do anything. If you want to move forward you can, but some may say, 'Let's pause here. I need to lower my bills first.' Some are really honest and say, 'Hey I can't afford [to repay]. I need to get another job.' And then they'll figure out how to navigate that process. So it just depends. Some have home-buying goals, and you know, your loan must be in repayment if you owe over $50,000. Sometimes that goal might fast-track the process because maybe they need a preapproval for a house they want. So now we're having a conversation of what to say to the lender and what type of letter they need to furnish to the lender.


Scenario 2: You've been out of school for years and the debt—plus interest—has been piling up.

We have [clients] who have six-figure debt and they're like, 'OK, I have never paid my loan, and I'm really scared.' Interest has accrued, they may have more responsibilities like a mortgage or a car note, and now, we have to work backwards. We ask, 'How much do you have available to make a payment?' Oftentimes that starts with a budget. We can talk about payment plans all day, but if a person says, 'Hey, I only have $300,' now we have to figure out what can work and fit at that amount.

That payment plan might not be what I advise them to do because they might be paying for 25 to 30 years [at that rate], but let's say they could've made a $500 payment and got rid of the debt in 10. If you're able to cut expenses or increase income, we definitely advise people to consider that.

That makes people feel a little more empowered because they have the money to do something and they know where they can begin in order to afford to pay off the debt.

Scenario 3: You've been offered a settlement.

For a federal loan, at that point, 9 times out of 10 the loan was sold to a third-party collector, [however], the collection agencies still have to report back to the federal government. With a private loan, if [the debt is] sold to collections, it's [usually sold to] a separate agency. If you receive a settlement offer, make sure that it's for the full amount because you don't want them to try and come back and sell the difference to another collection agency—federal government or not.

Second, consider that a settlement can really hurt your credit. For example, there are some people who may have a strategy where they default on the loan just to get a settlement because that's the only time the government will offer one. I don't recommend that. It's going to really damage your credit, and particularly if you're a millennial or younger, you may not want that damaging mark on your credit in case in the future you want to get jobs that require certain security clearances [or other requirements]. If you take that settlement, that's you committing to a default on the loan.

This happened to a good friend of mine. He [took a settlement on a student loan balance] for $50,000. His parents helped him pay it. Years later, he went to get a contract job with a tech security company. They were going to pay him $300,000 [annually], but they got to the last stage and had to withdraw the offer because [he could not get] the highest security clearance he needed because he defaulted on that federal loan. He was about to go from making $60,000 to six figures, in one day.

This is why we have to be careful about proposing settlements and really coaching clients through that because we don't know what fields they might want to enter into. A settlement is just something that can't be reversed.


Scenario 4: You've defaulted on your loans. Now what?

They can either pay in full, settle (which we just discussed), or [agree to] a consolidation if they're eligible. A consolidation is the act of putting all your loans together and the interest is the average sum total of all of your loans. You'll have one payment, one new loan. Another option, which is what we really tell people to consider first, is to rehabilitate.

The default rehabilitation program allows you to make, in good standing, 9 out of 10 payments, and those payments allow you to have the collection agency see and determine what you can pay. Most times, especially during this pandemic, we've seen people get a $5 payment.

The thought might be 'Well, I want to pay more on my loan,' but we don't want to pay a collection agency more. We want to pay the minimum in which we agreed to, because, if you were to default or stop [paying according to] the agreement, all the money you paid, until your debt is returned to a lender, goes back into [covering] the collection fees.

So, people are quick to pay more but that money is a threshold that goes to the fees first. The fees get removed once you're out of rehabilitation [which is after the 9 consecutive on-time payments that were agreed upon]. So, you definitely want to stay on top of it.

Let's say you're enrolled in the program to pay $5 on the first of every month. Be sure you set an alarm to look into your account and make sure the amount was indeed taken out. Some collectors are slick, and in the agreement, it says it's your responsibility to [keep track] of your payments. You're thinking because you're on auto pay for $5, what's the worst that can happen? They'll take their money. No, sometimes they don't.

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ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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