The system is particularly unbending for co-signers and parents who borrowed from the federal government because there are even fewer options for help.
"You can't refinance ... you can't take your business elsewhere. When you can't refinance, you'r e captured," Chopra said.
Federal parent loans lock borrowers into a 7.9 percent interest rate, more than twice the national average for a rate on a 30-year mortgage. Parents can't consolidate loans into one payment, and they are ineligible for the government's income-based repayment plan.
Some leaders, including President Barack Obama, say that changing that rule alone could greatly help struggling borrowers.
The U.S. Department of Education has no real accounting of how its parent PLUS loans are performing because it doesn't track them for defaults.
In a statement to The Dispatch, the department said: "While we want to ensure that taxpayer funds are paid back, we also offer flexibility to borrowers and have taken a number of steps to help them avoid default."
The parent loans are canceled if the student dies before the parent. However, the forgiven balance is treated as income, and the parents "get hit with a tax bill," said Mark Kantrowitz, an expert on financial aid and publisher of the websites FinAid.org and Fastweb.com.
Kantrowitz said the federal government should eliminate parent loans and base all loans on a student's ability to repay while allowing the poorest students to attend college free.
Living in the basement
The college degree that escaped Janice Ryan in her 20s finally was earned in her 60s. She had proved to her children that she could be more than a mom, and she was realizing her dream of running a restaurant with her son after earning a degree in hospitality management.
But shortly after they made a $17,000 deposit in 2008 for a Beef O'Brady's franchise, the economy went into deep recession, and neither the franchise nor any bank would lend them the additional money to open the neighbor sports pub.
Ryan filled out more than 100 applications but couldn't find a job; not even the fast-food chains were hiring.
Her student loans went into default, and an avalanche of debt soon followed -- not only for her, but also for her 94-year-old mother, Bella Logan, who had co-signed on about $30,000 in student loans.
Today, mainly because of compounding interest and fees, Logan owes $75,000 in student loans, and Ryan owes an additional $100,000 in private and federal loans.
"The debt collectors called my mom every single morning at 8 a.m., even after she had her stroke," said Ryan, 65, of Niles, between Warren and Youngstown. "They have been ruthless to a woman not far from 100. I tried to make myself and my life better, and now the rest of our lives are ruined by this."
Consumer complaints filed with the federal government and the Ohio attorney general's office include numerous cries for help from seniors who agreed to help their children and now are buried in debt in their golden years. Most say they attempt to keep up with payments, but they say that added fees and interest make it virtually impossible for people living on fixed incomes, pensions or Social Security benefits.
Ryan lost her home three years ago and lives with her husband in her mom's finished basement.
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