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A Minneapolis woman’s ‘bizarre and surreal’ decades-long loan dispute

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A woman sits in her living room
Kaja Robinson sits with boxes of student loan material in the living room of her south Minneapolis home.
Cody Nelson | MPR News

Editor’s note: Minnesotans who attend college have some of the highest student loan debt in the country. This story is part of an occasional series about individuals whose lives have been altered by their student debt. Share your story with MPR News at this link.

Kaja Robinson can’t forget the hold music at her former debt collection agency’s phone line.

“Oh my God, it's awful,” the 53-year-old said. “I hear it in my head all the time. It's kind of screechy and eerie like a sci-fi movie.”

It’s just one of the stress triggers Robinson has developed in her decades-long dispute over loans she took out as a college student in the late 1980s.

She borrowed about $17,000 to attend the University of Minnesota and has paid off $15,000 of the amount — according to a trove of records, including scans of checks, she’s kept in two large bankers boxes and shown to MPR News.

But according to the Department of Education, Robinson still owes some $49,000. That’s due to missing records of her payments and accrued interest, she said. 

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Resolving the confusion has been a fruitless, second job for Robinson. Another thing on top of being a parent to her college-aged daughter, Kia, and working in health care administration.

On the days she sets out to work on her loan debt, she said she has to work herself up to the task mentally. Then she sits on the floor with all relevant documentation spread around her, ready for eight hours of sitting on the phone and computer.

“Most days,” she said, “I try not to think about it because it's so emotionally taxing, stressful.”

She has tried legal action, too.

“I worked with lawyers — two or three over the years — who have tried to work with the Department of Education,” Robinson said. “There is no recourse yet.”

Education officials have told her to appeal the federal government in court. But that’s a nonstarter for Robinson; the closest court that’d take such a case is two states away in Chicago.

Part of Robinson’s problem is the faceless nature of lenders and debt collectors. Her loans have been passed from one company to another one several times over the years. She’ll make some progress and have a person to contact at one company, only to find the company out of business or her loan sold elsewhere next time she called.

“Knowing that the government believes that I owe this much money to them and knowing that I don't,” she said, “It's bizarre and surreal ... It seems like a big black dark empty hole and that there's just no way to get through it.”

This isn’t the first time a company has lost track of student loans. In 2017, a student loan trust lost paperwork for at least $5 billion in student loans.

Robinson’s exhausted from the years of confusion and financial stress, despite mostly paying off her loans and trying to resolve the situation by paying the remaining debt in one lump sum.

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Instead, she worked out a plan through her collection agency and the Department of Education to make $5 “good faith” monthly payments.

Doing that helped her credit score improve so she could get a mortgage and buy a house after years of trying.

But now, Robinson said the $5 withdrawals from her bank have stopped. She is, again, considered in default on her student loan.

The federal government could take money from her tax refund or paycheck. The future of her loans is up in the air.

Robinson doesn’t know what to do next. But she is encouraging her daughter not to take out any loans of her own.