Skipping out on repaying your student loans can end in some negative outcomes, ranging from ruined credit scores to trouble renting an apartment, but one man claimed this week that an old $1,500 college loan led to his arrest.
Paul Aker said U.S. Marshals arrested him over the 29-year-old loan, with seven people in combat gear showing up to take him to jail. Aker told a Fox station that it was "totally mind boggling" and that he was put in a cell for an hour before he was hauled in front of a judge.
America's student loans have ballooned to $1.3 trillion, with many graduates struggling to balance repayment with saving for future goals, ranging from buying a house to putting money aside for retirement. Aker's story clearly hit a nerve among college graduates and their families, with social media alighting with outrage over the incident. Yet the truth is more complicated than it first appeared: the U.S. Marshals said they showed up at Aker's doorstep after he failed to appear in court.
"Since November 2012, U.S. Marshals had made several attempts to serve a show cause order to Paul Aker to appear in federal court, including searching at numerous known addresses," the Marshals Service said in a statement emailed to CBS MoneyWatch. "Marshals spoke with Aker by phone and requested he appear in court, but Aker refused."
Aker also allegedly resisted arrest and claimed he had a gun, according to the statement.
The bottom line: graduates won't get arrested simply for failing to pay their student loans. Failing to show up in court, however, may result in marshals knocking at your door.
Regardless of the reason for Aker's arrest, some are pointing to the incident as an expression of the headaches and sorrows caused by student loan burdens. Representative from the Debt Collective, an organization that advocates on behalf of students who attended for-profit colleges, are meeting with lawmakers on Wednesday and Thursday this week to urge for class-wide discharge of loans held by for-profit graduates.
"Student loans are a systemic issue," said Danielle Adorno, who left the Art Institute with $25,000 in debt and hasn't found a job in the field she studied, pastry art. She now works as an organizer with the Debt Collective. "This isn't unique; there are a lot of people who can't afford to pay."
Aker's case may cause some people with student loans to believe they'll be arrested for falling behind in their student debt, she said.
While an arrest may be unlikely, the incident raises questions about how student debt is treated by federal agencies. More than 20 states will revoke the drivers' licenses of people who have fallen behind in their debt repayment, a punishment that some state legislators are trying to change.
U.S. Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas), who appeared with Aker on the Fox interview, questioned the use of public agencies to enforce private debts. "There has to be a better way to collect on a student debt that's so old," he said.
The Department of Education, after exhausting routes such as wage garnishment, turns over cases of loan defaults to the Department of Justice, which in turn sues to recover the money, according to Edvisors. At that point, the federal government may bring in private attorneys to help track down the unpaid money. Student loan borrowers who are in default are often given more severe consequences than other debtors who fall behind, according to Bloomberg News.