Meet the Guy Hounding You Over Your Student Loan Debt

COMPLEX: So tell me a little bit about yourself. Where'd you grow up and what are you doing now?

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If you have student debt, odds are that you've taken (or dodged) a call from a debt collector at some point. In the process, did you ever wonder who the person was on the other end of the phone? Well, meet Rashaun, a former student loan debt collector for Sallie Mae.

The 35-year-old father of two was born in Hawaii but grew up in Minneapolis where he attended the University of Minnesota. Today, Rashaun lives in Cleveland and is a freelance artist and graphic designer who runs his own clothing line and, despite what you may assume, he has student loan debt himself—roughly $35,000 of it. Complex got in touch with Rashaun to find out how he joined one of the most despised professions, what it's like hounding people for money, and what it was really like working for Sallie Mae.

Rashaun, how did you end up working for Sallie Mae?

Actually based on the need to pay for my school loans after I got out, I needed a job. So I ended up working, doing credit card collections for a while, and it was a great industry, you know. I easily made $60,000, $70,000 out of school, not doing anything but sitting at a desk basically... That was about 2003 or 2004, then all of a sudden it kind of fell out, when the recession started hitting all of the mortgage industry.

Yeah, ok. So how did you end up going from credit cards to student loan collections?

My income went from literally $70,000 doing credit card collections to about $35,000 to $40,000, and literally my lifestyle was based on that...and I had to change it up.

So, for about two years it was credit cards, but the last five or six was all student loans. [Both federal and private.]

So how did you get that job then? Like you just applied for a job at Sallie Mae?

Just searched it out through friends. They told me that that's the new move, if you’re into collections and that's kind of your gig. So i searched it out and a couple people told me about it. And I loved it and stayed with it.

So you were a collections guy, I guess? You were on that route.

You got to have a crazy mind for it, I think... A lot of people, man, don't last literally the first week, because it’s not a normal type of job.

And when you started the job, first of all, how did they sort of train you to be a student loan collector?

To be very honest, my credit card collections--I had probably two to three months of just intense training. Learning about the laws, how to do it. Once you know collections they don’t really train you anymore. They just kind of tell you what’s the paper, to use the verbiage--what you’re collecting on is called paper--so once they tell you what the paper is you basically just show up and start collecting. I really didn't learn anything about student loans...all the industry jargon and all the terms that were used, I just learned on the fly. So to be honest I had no training at all. [Laughs]

How did they train other people, if somebody had come in who didn't have that background? Would they go through a process, or is it pretty much still not very much training?

They would put the focus really on the laws--state laws, federal laws--and how to collect.  But about what student loans are, what do they do, why these people are even here--was never taught.

[Most collectors] would fall off anyway, because you have to almost embrace it as a career. I mean you’re your own personal contractor. Yeah, you get paid hourly, whatever, sometimes you get a salary, but most of the time you’re there for the commission, so if somebody doesn't pay me--that’s when collectors get aggressive. They’re taking it personal…I think a good example is when you see cops pull somebody over, and they fled, or they were running from the cops for a long time… the way they beat them up is not because the guy is so bad, or the woman is so bad, it's because they’re so pissed that they had to go through all that.

So it’s sort of progressive—like collectors tend to be cool at first, but then if it keeps going on and on then I guess their patience wears thin?

RC: I’ve seen a lot of bad collectors who don’t have patience, don’t know how to de-escalate, are jaded at their jobs. They’ve been in this too long, they’re burned out. Some of them try to get all their hours in by Thursday or Wednesday, so it’s like you’re working 12 hour days talking to some of the worst--I say the worst percentage of [debtors], but you’re talking to people that don’t necessarily pay their bills, don’t intend to pay their bills, are trying to hide from their bills. And so it’s a long day. It’s a lot of negativity.

Can you give me an example of what you say to somebody? Somebody’s late on their loan--how does that go?

You give the normal script, which is ‘This is an attempt to collect the remaining debt, any information obtained will be for that purpose”... and then you jump in and tell them about it, talk about the balance. The difference between bad and good collectors, I guess, is--regardless of what paper it is, especially student loans--is really not being scared of what you’re collecting on. So if you have $100,000 in front of you, most people will [be scared] by a big balance. I’m assuming it’s $10 to you. “So how do you want to pay the balance off today? One hundred thousand seventeen dollars and 16 cents.” And then you just sit there ...They’ll spill all the beans, and with all the information there you can attack the account and kind of figure out what you want to do..and then based on that information you think if it’s worth enough to follow up with them or not, and then you just keep it moving. So it’s really a numbers game, and a speed game, really, to be very honest.

So as a collector you get a commission on what they pay--so you’re trying to just get as much as you can of out of them, right?

Yeah, my goal is to get the balance paid off first, and if you don’t pay the balance then I might offer you very very unreasonable payment arrangements--I think that creates kind of a scare in you. Like “Oh My God, they’re not playing. They’re only taking $10,000 a month.”.. Even though I never said anything. I just said, “Well I could offer it in three months. That’s $50,000 a month. ‘I can’t do that.’ “Ok, how close to that $50,000 can you do?” So really I’m opening up all the doors for them to kind of fall into a trap.

I didn’t realize that you as a collector have a lot of leeway as far as the plans and stuff you can offer people… for private loans, the individual collector can choose his own strategy?

Yeah, but to be honest, the policy is still based on the company. They’re all about money. So this person might be paying 50 bucks a month and your manager might come to you and say, ‘Listen, you need to up their payments or you’re going to lose it.’ So now that’s money out of your pocket. So you’re like, ‘Hey sir, you have to pay 100 dollars. ‘Oh I can’t pay that.’...It’s almost like contrived urgency. There’s a weird gray line that you can ride in collections, and if you don’t know how to do it well, you’re not going to make it. Or you’re going to get trampled over.

The gray line, I guess, is knowing how much to push people before it backfires?

Yeah. I mean, because there’s a real negative connotation to collections. And I still do collections here and there...But I think the issue is that there’s always negative connotations, so initially people are already off kilter. They’re pissed. Their pride is on the line. If you got down to Mazlov’s hierarchy of needs--I mean I would look at it sociologically. I would look at it this way: This dude’s already pissed. I understand. I’m going to let him rant and get it out. I think the issue is that it’s not a negative thing; it’s just people look at it negatively, so that’s when you start having those battles...I’ve had some of the craziest borrowers. I’ve had people tell me I’m a deadbeat. I don’t know if I necessarily sound like a black male all the time, but there’s times I’ve been called the N-word...

Oh my god.

Go back to your country. It’s just because they didn’t pay their bill.

So, it sounds like sometimes it got kind of heated on the phone.

Oh yeah. I’ve walked away a couple times, and taken a breather. They always tell you take a couple minutes...there’s times where it almost gets personal, and I’m like, “Man if I would have been in front of you man-- WHEW!”  [Laughs]

Did you ever feel bad about it? Because, as you say, people have pretty strong ideas about collectors and it can get heated, but you’re kind of squeezing people for money. Did you ever have conflicted feelings about that?

I would say that most of the time-- never. It was just a job, just like anybody else doing their job. There was a couple times where someone--you could tell they were sincere. Like [they] can’t pay it, or they paid a lot off, they just missed a payment. The company’s not going to beat me up for not taking a payment that month, so I’ll give him a reprieve for that month.

Rashaun, Student Debt Collector

It really just depends on the person and how sincere they were. If you hit goals you’re probably more lenient. If you had a really good day, your last payment [was big], you felt lenient. So there’s plenty of times--”Man I only have $17 to my name..I’m disabled right now, that’s why I couldn’t finish school. I’ll give you $17.” And I’m like ‘ay yay yay. Ok, well, how about this: Skip the payment, get [better] for next month because I know you’re going to have the same issues, and we’ll figure out something smaller.” So there was plenty of times I would work with people because you have to be reasonable, too.

So you would really listen to people’s stories and try to do it on an individual kind of basis?

Yeah. You would try to take it case by case.

That’s cool. I think a lot of people wouldn’t realize that about collectors, that there’s this sort of human side to it.

Yeah, I think people forget that, definitely. And I think the collectors do too.

What other advice do you have for people borrowing?

Don’t be afraid to open the letters and call the company first. Once you get over that fear you’d be surprised at all the help that is available. Second, I guess, I would just say do what you can...because a lot of people forget that if you make smaller payments towards the balance every month it technically can’t go to collections. It might be past due. It might hurt your credit. You might have a huge balance. But they can’t get rid of it because you are showing this faith...And if you get a douchebag [collector], write it down, time it, record it and call a lawyer.

So it sounds like you liked the job, on the whole? Being a collector?

I liked it. I think you make good money for something that you didn’t necessarily have training for...The most I ever made was $71,000, and I want to say I was a small fish. There’s people that easily made $100,000.

What separates a collector? What makes a more lucrative collector?

If somebody calls in with a big loan and no one has ownership of it, you might give it to your best collector to call. Because he’s probably going to knock it out.

I think one thing people forget is that the manager of the collection agency is on the line by the company. They got crazy pressure. You’re hearing numbers all day: “We’re number one! We’re first place!” Then it turns to: “We’re going to lose all the accounts and never going to work again!” So it’s a shark tank. It’s crazy.

Rashaun, thanks so much. Let me ask you, Are your loans paid off?

I do not have my school loans paid off, no.

How much you got left?

Probably the same dang amount... I’m stuck like every other person. Yeah, I’m just paying the minimum payments.

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