Chad Haag considered living in a cave to escape his student debt. He had a friend doing it. But after some plotting, he settled on what he considered a less risky plan. This year, he relocated to a jungle in India. “I’ve put America behind me,” Haag, 29, said.
He now lives in a concrete house in the village of Uchakkada for $50 a month. His backyard is filled with coconut trees and chickens. “I saw four elephants just yesterday,” he said, adding that he hopes to never set foot in a Walmart again.
His debt is currently on its way to default. But more than 9,000 miles away from Colorado, Haag said, his student loans don’t feel real anymore.
“It’s kind of like, if a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, does it really exist?” he said.
The philosophy major concedes that his student loan balance of around $20,000 isn’t as large as the burden shouldered by many other borrowers, but he said his difficultly finding a college-level job in the U.S. has made that debt oppressive nonetheless. “If you’re not making a living wage,” Haag said, ”$20,000 in debt is devastating.”
He struggled to come up with the $300 a month he owed. The first work he found after he graduated from the University of Northern Colorado in 2011 — when the recession’s effects were still palpable — was on-again, off-again hours at a factory, unloading trucks and constructing toy rockets on an assembly line. He then went back to school to pursue a master’s degree in comparative literature at the University of Colorado Boulder. After that, he tried to make it as an adjunct professor, but still he could barely scrape a living together with the one class a semester he was assigned.
Haag had some hope restored when he landed full-time work as a medical courier in Denver, delivering urine and blood samples to hospitals. However, he was disappointed to find that he brought home just $1,700 a month. He had little money left over after he paid his student loan bill. He couldn’t afford an apartment in the city, where rents have been rising sharply. He lived with his mother and rarely went out with friends.
Milestones that seemed like pipe dreams back home, like starting a family, and owning a house, are now on his horizon. This year he married an Indian citizen, a professor at a local college. He now has a five-year spousal visa, and plans to renew it when the time comes.
Adjusting to a new country, he admitted, has not been entirely easy.
“Some toilets here are holes in the ground you squat over,” Haag said. Recently, he ate spoiled goat meat at a local restaurant and landed in the emergency room.
Still, he said, “I have a higher standard of living in a Third World country than I would in America, because of my student loans.”
Defeated by their student debt, some borrowers are packing their bags and fleeing from the U.S. to other countries, where the cost of living is often lower and debt collectors wield less power over them. Although there is no national data on how many people have left the United States because of student debt, borrowers tell their stories of doing so in Facebook groups and Reddit channels. How-to advice is offered on personal finance websites.
“It may be an issue we see an uptick in if the trends keep up,” said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
Outstanding student debt in the U.S. has tripled over the last decade and is projected to swell to $2 trillion by 2022. Average debt at graduation is currently around $30,000, up from an inflation-adjusted $16,000 in the early 1990s. Meanwhile, salaries for new bachelor degree recipients, also accounting for inflation, have remained almost flat over the last few decades.
Half of student loan borrowers haven’t paid even $1 toward their debt’s principal five years into repayment, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Forty percent of student loan borrowers are expected to default by 2023, according to the Brookings Institution.