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One Tampa Bay resident says his student loans were forgiven, but he wants the payments he made back

A man uses a polishing tool on a car's paint.
Bailey LeFever
/
WUSF
Michael Odom polishes a car's paint job at a Tampa auto body shop.

Michael Odom attended a for-profit college that he thought would set him up with a solid career.

Millions of Americans are saddled with thousands of dollars of student loan debt. But some never received their degrees, were scammed by a for-profit college, or should have never received a loan in the first place.

At the end of the August, Americans with student loan debt will resume payments.

WUSF is bringing you the stories of some Tampa Bay residents whose lives have been shaped by their student loan debt.

We hear more from a Hillsborough County resident who recently had his student loans discharged.

MORE STUDENT DEBT VOICES:

Michael Odom had been living abroad for many years — but when his mother got sick, he decided to move to Tampa to take care of her.
Once there, he decided to pursue a technical career, so he enrolled in medical billing and coding school at what was then Florida Metropolitan University, where he took out slightly less than $20,000 in student loans.

"I figured that was a perfect time for me to be back in the country to get some technical training, because at one point, my caregiving duties would be over and then I would stand there, having to move forward in my life."

The school ended up being a scam — part of the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges network. Odom took classes for a few months, then decided to leave.

"The place functioned at a 10th grade high school level, the infrastructure was falling apart, they moved us from a converted commercial building to a retail building," he said. "Sometimes you could hear the instruction from another class between the walls. So my thing was like, this is obviously a for-profit institution, which I was unaware of being absent from the country for all these years."

As his mother's caregiver, Odom wasn't making any money and couldn't make loan payments. He later realized he never should have been given the loan in the first place because he had not lived or worked in the U.S. for the required amount of time when he received the loan.

For a period, he was put under a wage garnishment, placing immense pressure on his financial stability.

"And when the wage garnishment hit me, I went from working for $14 an hour to $10.87 an hour, so from that perspective alone, you can understand what somebody's day to day, week to week paycheck, survival was like, along with the mental anguish of knowing that you're in that financial stranglehold."

Finally, Odom submitted an application for the Borrower's Defense to Repayment program to try to get the issue resolved. And in April, Odom received a letter saying his loans were discharged.

"Not having to be financially obligated to this institution is a big relief, because, see I'm a world traveler. So let's say I stop working here and I want to go somewhere else. If I'm obligated to pay them this student loan every month and I miss a payment or I said, 'Hey, I'm gonna relocate,' wherever I go and move and relocate, that wage garnishment follows me around. So it takes away what you're allowed to do, basically, and you can't plan."

Dominique Baker is an assistant professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University. She says the Borrower's Defense to Repayment program provides an opportunity for people whose college took advantage of them to have their loans waived or canceled — although it might take a lot of paperwork.

"That's typically one of the best ways to try if predatory loans were made to a borrower," she said. "That can be an incredibly difficult road to travel."

Baker says there's pressure from some college loan researchers and activists to make access to the federal student loan program more stringent for colleges, so some of these situations could be stopped before they happen.

Odom now works as a paint correction specialist at a Seminole Heights body repair shop. He says he doesn't need a lot of money to live on when he does retire — but he would like to give what he has to his eight grandkids.

And while Odom's loans have finally been forgiven, he wants the money he paid over the years back.

"I think I'm owed restitution," he said. "I suffered literally for years of emotional anguish being in this financial stranglehold, knowing that I was right all along, and they just completely stonewalled me on everything at all fronts. All I want is my money back."

Bailey LeFever is a reporter focusing on education and health in the greater Tampa Bay region.
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