Johnny Comes Marching Home to Loans

Think joining the army will clear your student debt? Better check the fine print.

Maybe figuring that it is mostly worried moms keeping their kids home, the army, after its fourth straight month of recruitment shortfalls, has begun broadcasting a new series of TV ads. They feature young people telling their folks about the education benefits—up to $70,000 for college or $65,000 to repay student loans—and the chance to serve a worthy cause.

Kathy Allwein of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, found herself having that exact conversation with her younger son in 2002. Tony Allwein, now 24, graduated from Catholic school in 1999 and attended the Pennsylvania College of Technology, a public technical affiliate of Penn State, for three years, where he studied computer programming. He was putting himself through with student loans, and Kathy Allwein says the debt was a big factor in his decision to drop out and, soon after, join the army.

"I knew that getting my loans paid off would be a huge benefit for myself and my parents," Tony Allwein, now stationed in Germany, said by e-mail. "Four years of service to erase a $19,000 debt seemed pretty good. The fact that I could finish my education in the army sounded really good."

Tony Allwein, on patrol in Iraq, joined up for relief from his student loans.
photo: Courtesy Tony Allwein
Tony Allwein, on patrol in Iraq, joined up for relief from his student loans.

Now members of the anti-war group Military Families Speak Out, Kathy and her husband weren't exactly thrilled. "We fought him every step of the way," Kathy says. "Tony just told me I worried too much, that he wouldn't have to go to Iraq." The Allweins knew better, but at least, they thought, his education debt would be taken care of.

"That recruiter sat in our living room and promised the whole family that these loans would be taken care of in full," Kathy says, her voice steely. "In his contract it was stated that they would take care of them." In Iraq, Tony served as a rear gunner on a convoy, for a month or two lacking much needed body armor. His active duty ends in November 2006 and he is eligible to be called back for four years after that. And just last month, his family found out that his loans would not be repaid by the U.S. government. Not one cent.

"We kept getting hounded by these people," Kathy says of the student loan collectors. "They kept calling and asking why these weren't being paid. His recruiter told us it always takes a while, so just be patient and they'll be taken care of. I went through my congressman and they sent me a packet of information that I did not understand. I have a friend who's an attorney and she explained the whole thing to me."

The fine print states that since Anthony's loans came from from a private lender, not the government's guaranteed federal student loan program, they weren't covered. Private or alternative student loans make up one of the fastest-growing sectors of the student loan market, with an estimated volume of $10.5 billion in the 2003-04 school year (compared to a total of $81.5 billion in federal student loans). Marketed by most banks and all the big student loan companies, including Sallie Mae, private loans are the only choice for the growing number of students whose financial need goes beyond federally subsidized loan limits. But they feature higher interest rates and often fewer repayment options. Kathy said her family, which almost certainly would have been eligible for federal loans, was not aware of the difference when Tony went to school.

Tony's recruiter said he wasn't allowed to talk to the press. A military source did confirm the details of Allwein's story, though, including that Anthony's contract stated the loans would be repaid.

The Allweins are not the only family complaining that recruiters are getting desperate or sometimes misleading. With the war getting less popular every day, there have been reports of recruiters falsifying documents or passing recruits answers on the qualifying exam. The New York Times reported in May that recruiters are feeling pressure to bend the rules, even accepting one young man straight out of a psych ward. There has been talk of accepting older and less-educated people and overlooking a record of minor crimes.

For now, Kathy, an administrative assistant, and her husband, who works for the Hershey Company, will have to make those loan payments themselves. It will not be easy with their youngest soon heading to college. In a word, Kathy says, she feels "betrayed."

Tony Allwein echoes his mother's sentiments. "I really feel that I, as well as my parents, got screwed pretty badly. The reason I joined the army was to get rid of my loans. It was bad enough I was sent to fight a war I had no idea why I was fighting. Then I came back to Germany to find out my loans wouldn't be paid, like my contract said."

 
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