"It’s kind of like, if a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, does it really exist?" said 29-year-old Chad Haag, who relocated from Colorado to a jungle in India to avoid paying his $20,000 loan balance. "I've put America behind me," said Haag - 9,000 miles away from home.
Today he 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 never to set foot in a Walmart again. -CNBC
That said, it hasn't all been smooth sailing - including finding acceptable loos to poo in. "Some toilets here are holes in the ground you squat over," said Hagg, who added that he recently ate spoiled goat meat at a local restaurant, landing him in the emergency room. Still, he insists "I have a higher standard of living in a Third World country than I would in America, because of my student loans."
"If you’re not making a living wage, $20,000 in debt is devastating," said Haag, who struggled to come up with the $300 a month he owed upon graduating from the University of Northern Colorado in 2011. Hagg's first postgraduate job was working on-again, off-again hours unloading trucks and constructing toy rockets on an assembly line.
While there is no official data on how many people have fled the United States to get out of student debt, there's ample evidence that people are heading for the hills based on Reddit posts, Facebook groups, and financial advice doled out on various 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.
With outstanding student debt projected to exceed $2 billion by 2022, the average graduate owes around $30,000, up from an inflation-adjusted $16,000 in the 1990s. As CNBC notes, salaries for those with new bachelor degrees have remained virtually flat over the last several decades.
In Hagg's case, after his stints at the toy factory and loading trucks, he went back to school to pursue a master's degree in comparative literature at the University of Colorado Boulder, after which he tried his hand at being a low-paid adjunct professor.
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.
“I couldn’t make the math work in America,” Haag said. -CNBC
Last year, Hagg married an Indian citizen who teaches at a local college. He is currently living on a five-year spousal visa.
Not so fast?
While the Department of Education typically can't garnish someone's wages if they work for a company outside of the United States, they can take up to 15% of Social Security benefits when they start collecting.
"The loans do not disappear when you become an expat," said student loan expert Mark Kantrowitz.
Also of note, in February of 2018 the IRS began alerting the US State Department of extremely delinquent debtors, while the State Department has warned those with "seriously delinquent tax debt" that their passports may be revoked.
Other tales of bailing out
39-year-old Chad Albright graduated from Millersville University in Pennsylvania in 2007 after studying communications and history, and somehow couldn't find a job.
"I went to interview after interview after interview," said Albright.
Still, he had $30,000 in student loans and was soon faced with a monthly bill of around $400. Unable to support himself, he moved in with his parents in Lancaster and worked as a pizza deliveryman. “There was anger,” Albright said. “I couldn’t believe I couldn’t find a job in America.”
He fell behind on his student loans and feared the Education Department would garnish his wages.
Albright’s credit score tanked as a result of his repayment troubles, making it difficult for him to buy a car and to land certain jobs, since some employers now pull credit reports. “I feel that college ruined my life,” Albright said.
Seeing no future for himself in the United States, he decided to move to China in 2011. In the city of Zhongshan, he discovered he loved teaching students English. Unlike when he was delivering greasy boxes of pizza, he found his work meaningful and fulfilling. -CNBC
A few years after moving to China to earn $1,000 a month, Albright moved to Ukraine, where he is now a permanent resident. He has taught in Kiev and now Odessa, a port city on the Black Sea.
"I am much happier in Ukraine," says Albright, who has no plans to return to the United States and hasn't checked his student loan account in almost eight years.
Another student-loan escapee, Katrina Williams, couldn't find a job after graduating from the University of South Alabama in 2013 with a $700 per month loan bill.
"I had to take whatever I could so I could pay on the loans," said Williams, who took on jobs as a Starbucks Barista, a substitute teacher, a USPS delivery woman, and a Sears call center employee.
"I was working every day," said Williams. "I had enough money left over to put gas in the car."
Williams had a friend who had moved to Japan, and the idea of leaving the United States grew on her. In 2015, she moved to Chiba, also to teach English to students. “I love my work,” she said. Her job sponsors her visa.
She has her own apartment now and doesn’t have to work seven days a week anymore. Yet Williams misses her relationships back home; she hasn’t been able to make many friends in Japan.
She thinks about returning to the U.S., but knows she will be welcomed back by wage garnishments and endless calls from collection agencies. Her student debt has ballooned to well over $100,000.
“I wish I could come back to America and not be scared,” she said. -CNBC
According to Nassirian, there are far more reasonable ways of dealing with student debt - including entering into the government's income-based repayment plans.
At the end of the day, perhaps Student Loan Justice founder Alan Collinge has a point when he said that "Any rational person who learns that people are fleeing the country as a result of their student loan debt will conclude that something has gone horribly awry with this lending system."