The Crushing ‘Double-Whammy’ of Surviving Assault Only to Face Student Loans

A new bill aims to give campus survivors a 3-year grace period to help them try to heal before the debt piles up.

The Crushing ‘Double-Whammy’ of Surviving Assault Only to Face Student Loans
A Harvard University student walks through Harvard’s campus. Photo:Erin Clark/The Boston Globe (Getty Images)

As a college freshman at Penn State, LaQuisha Anthony, once a star student athlete, was forced to drop out after experiencing a sexual assault. The harrowing experience would subject her to a 12-year “battle with suicide, severe depression, and financial instability,” she said in a press release about the newly introduced Student Loan Deferment for Sex-Based Harassment Survivors Act (HR 558) in Congress. The ability to instead pause her education—and her student loan payments—to seek treatment amid a mental health crisis could have prevented Anthony from dropping out, she told Jezebel. Instead, she had to end her education to take care of herself.

“You’re experiencing one of the most horrific nightmares of your life, dealing with this traumatic experience, and you’re still worrying about paying a bill, even if you’re no longer able to stay in school,” Anthony, now an advocacy coordinator at WOAR-Philadelphia Center Against Sexual Violence, said. “Making student loan payments during the time that you’re trying to recover can be a huge trigger—you might have stepped away from school for your mental wellbeing but every time you have to log on and make a payment, you’re reminded of the very attack that happened on this particular campus.”

Anthony is working with Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) to pass HR 5588, a bill that would allow student survivors of sexual abuse to defer their student loan payments for up to three years if the abuse they faced impeded their ability to stay in school. The bill, which defines sexual violence as “sex-based harassment” to broaden who would be eligible, could help former students as well as current students who take a break from their schooling after an assault. A three-year window to defer loans should give students some time to focus on themselves and get their finances in order, Anthony noted.

HR 5588, introduced by Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) in the Senate last month, is particularly timely: On Sunday, student loan payments—long deferred by the Biden administration—resumed. Today, 45 million Americans owe around $1.6 trillion.

Dean, a former professor, told Jezebel she introduced HR 5588 because she witnessed firsthand how sexual abuse and the lack of options available to survivors to “take a step back” from education when needed could affect her students. Often enough, student survivors—and all survivors—are treated to ineffectual platitudes by lawmakers and administrators in Title IX offices. “But when you’re a student navigating this trauma, you should be able to get the help you need without worrying about debt,” Dean said. Student survivors face “this double whammy of trying to figure out how to get well, and heal,” while simultaneously being forced to “repay loans or default on those loans.”

“I always say that getting raped is the most expensive thing that ever happened to me,” Wagatwe Wanjuki, an anti-rape activist and educator, told Jezebel. Wanjuki was expelled from her school after her grades suffered as she grappled with the trauma of her assault, for which her school declined to take action. Afterward, she recounts making “compromises in terms of not paying for therapy when I had student loan payments coming up,” and feels the economic toll of her assault to this day. “For a lot of survivors, maybe they can’t hold a high-paying job because of PTSD, or they have fewer connections and resources after dropping out of school. When schools don’t address sexual assault, there’s this snowball effect, this debt that can follow us the rest of our lives,” she said.

Dean points out that survivors’ economic prospects can be bleak—by no fault of their own. Indeed, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center notes that the lifetime economic cost of rape across all U.S. victims stands at nearly $3.1 trillion (including $1.2 trillion in medical costs, $1.6 trillion in lost productivity, and $234 billion in legal costs). A 2017 analysis of data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics indicated almost 40% of people who took out loans in 2011-2012 weren’t able to complete college within six years. Survivors may be disproportionately represented in this demographic—one 2015 study of student survivors estimated 34% were forced to drop out of school, like Anthony and Wanjuki. With stifling debt and without degrees, these survivors are seemingly set up for economic struggle.

“You’re experiencing one of the most horrific nightmares of your life, and you’re still worrying about paying a bill.”

As part of Know Your IX’s ongoing research of the impact of campus sexual assault on student survivors, organizer Thalia Charles told Jezebel she’s heard from a student who paused her education after being assaulted, lost her job, and became homeless at one point. She’s also heard from survivors whose “student debt entrapped them in abusive situations to pay their loans”—like domestic violence survivors who remain tied to their abusers by mounting bills.

Just last year, President Biden signed the Joint Consolidation Loan Separation Act, a law that was necessary after a 1990s federal program allowed married couples to consolidate their student loans to pay a lower interest rate but gave them no means to separate their loans if they separated—including in cases of domestic violence. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who first introduced that bill, told NPR last February that one of his constituents told him she’d been forced to keep paying her abusive ex-husband’s student loans. “While she physically got away, she couldn’t get away from this mutual debt from an abusive husband,” he said.

The reintroduction of HR 5588 comes after a similar version of the bill didn’t move forward last year. It also comes as student loan repayments resume this week after the Supreme Court struck down President Biden’s student loan forgiveness program, which would have eliminated $10,000 of federal student loan debt for people who earn up to $125,000 each year. The Biden administration loan maintains it is exploring options for future student debt relief. Whatever Biden is or isn’t able to deliver on this front, Dean said she’s “hopeful” her bill can get bipartisan support for HR 5588 as a simultaneously “compassionate” and fiscally smart measure. That said, Republicans have by and large stood against any student debt relief. (The Joint Consolidation Loan Separation Act got just 14 Republican votes in the House.)

Wanjuki hopes that if Dean’s Student Loan Deferment for Sex-Based Harassment Survivors Act does pass, “it’s not a huge bureaucratic burden on survivors” and relief is readily accessible.

While it is directed at debt and economic relief, Anthony said HR 5588 is also about challenging how we conceive of sexual violence as a nation. “When we think about survivors of sexual assault, we merely think about what’s happening in that moment, the assault itself—we don’t think about the long-term impact that this will have on someone, their health, their finances, [their] ability to participate in life,” she said. Granting survivors the financial leeway to prioritize their mental health is just a first step.

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