YORK, Pa. – Eventually, Chad Albright just couldn't take it anymore. The rejection, the depression, the mounting bills, it became too much to deal with all on his own.
"I had to escape this debtors’ prison," he said. It felt like there was no other choice. "That's what America became to me, a prison. So I left."
Albright bought a one-way ticket to China and boarded an airplane, uncertain if he would ever return to the country he once considered home.
It was 2011, and Albright was 30 years old, starting over in a country more than 7,000 miles away from his life in Pennsylvania — away from his family, his friends, and far away from the $30,000 he owed in student loans.
Borrowing money for college seemed like a sound financial decision at the time. Albright thought his degree would reliably lead the way to a well-paying career.
With tuition comes high debt. And when delivering pizzas was the only job he could find two years post-graduation — with the country’s outstanding student debt rising above $1 trillion, and 1 million people defaulting on student loans every year — it didn’t seem like it was worth it after all.
“I was expected to make a $400 loan payment every month, but I had no money, no sustainable income,” Albright said during a Skype interview. “College ruined my life.”
In high school, he read books about the American dream, classics like "The Great Gatsby" and "The Grapes of Wrath." If he worked hard, it would pay off — that’s what he was always told.
But, Albright said, he now knows those were just stories.
“There was no future for me in the United States,” Albright said. “And the American dream? Yeah, it doesn’t exist.”
According to the Institute for College Access and Success, the national average student loan debt is $28,650 for the class of 2017, and in Pennsylvania, the average was $36,854. Connecticut has the highest student loan debt in the country at $38,500.
About two in three students who graduated in 2017 had student loan debt.
How did he get here?
Growing up, it was drilled into Albright's head that college would lead to success.
His father worked for the railroad, and his mother was a beautician. They never attended college but believed if their son went he would have ample opportunities at his fingertips.
Albright started delivering pizzas right after high school to save money for his college tuition and continued to work full time even after starting classes. He was 25 years old when he finally thought he earned enough money to enroll at Millersville University.
It wasn't easy being the oldest student in his classes, Albright said. His classmates ostracized him and it was difficult balancing his course load and a full-time job.
"I wanted that diploma, and I was willing to work for it," Albright said. "Everyone always told me it would be worth it."
So as costs began to add up — tuition, textbooks, rent — Albright felt justified in his decision to take out student loans.
But to his dismay, finding a job after graduation wouldn't be so easy. His degree in public relations wasn't opening up as many doors as he anticipated.
Albright graduated in December 2007 — right at the start of the economic crisis that would later become known as the Great Recession, the longest period of economic decline since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Millions of people lost their life savings, their jobs and their homes. Not exactly an ideal time to be entering the job market, Albright said.
Interview after interview, Albright heard the same thing: “Sorry, there’s someone who’s been doing this for 10 years and just lost their job. I have to go with someone who has 10 years’ experience.”
“But the last thing they would say to me,” Albright recalls, “‘Don't worry, your day will come.'”
Back to the pizza shop and back to living with his parents in Lancaster, Albright fell into a deep depression. He was behind on his student loans and still couldn’t find a job. Plus, he was worried that once he did find a job, the government would garnish his wages.
“Two years of nonstop interviews and nothing,” Albright said. “I was so done.”
'My life was so much better once I left. Why would I ever go back?'
After being on the job hunt for two years, Albright finally saw a glimmer of hope. While he was at the gym, he saw a woman on CNN talking about her job teaching English to children in Hong Kong.
“She said, ‘I have no desire to return back home,’” Albright recalled. “That’s when I started looking into teaching overseas.”
He told his parents about his idea, and to his surprise, they supported the decision. They saw how much their son had been struggling, and they wanted to see him happy, said his mother, Leslie Mullin.
“As a parent, you just want your child to be happy,” Mullin said. “So even though I was worried about him being so far away, I wasn’t going to stand in his way.”
Albright arrived in China in 2011 and began teaching English in the city of Zhongshan. He loved working with children and developed a knack for teaching, he said.
And for the first time, he felt like he was doing something meaningful with his life.
He was only earning about $1,000 a month in China — not a large amount by most standards, Albright said — but his rent was covered through his job. And since the cost of living in China is so much less than in Pennsylvania, Albright was able to enjoy his income.
He went out to eat with friends, traveled to other cities: “Things I never got the chance to do in America because of my student debt,” Albright said. “My life was so much better once I left. Why would I ever go back?”
Albright did eventually go back to the United States, but just to visit his mother. And after teaching in China for a few years, he moved to Ukraine, where he now is a permanent resident, working in sales. He hasn’t checked his student loan account in nearly eight years, either.
"I hardly ever think about it," he said.
‘Just because you’re not in the U.S., doesn’t mean the loans disappear’
Leaving the country to avoid student loan payments is not exactly a practical solution, said expert Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president for research at Savingforcollege.com. There are ways to refinance loans, to get on income-based repayment plans — there are other options.
“That seems drastic,” Kantrowitz said of leaving. “The way you deal with big figures is you take it one step at a time. You will eventually pay back that debt, eventually you will reach a solution. Just because you’re not in the U.S. doesn’t mean the loans disappear. You’re really only digging yourself a bigger hole.”
Student loans can be a heavy burden to bear for many. They require extra effort to discharge in bankruptcy compared to other debts like credit cards. The federal government may garnish a person’s wages, Social Security benefits or tax refund if the debt goes unpaid for long enough.
“Skipping out on an obligation will complicate life more,” Kantrowitz said. “Also, just think about everything you would miss out on.”
Albright understands that — he feels like he's missed out on major milestones. Since he defaulted on his loan payments, his credit suffered, making it particularly difficult for him to invest in any “big purchases.”
“I’m 39 years old and never even been able to buy a car,” Albright said.
Living alone, Albright's come to the realization that he may never get married, start a family, or buy a house — a fact particularly frustrating for someone who always wanted children, he said.
“I’m happy to be away from my debt, but I'm lonely most of the time," Albright said. "I don't really have other options at this point, though."
What can be done to address the problem?
While it's not particularly common, Albright isn’t the only person to have fled the country to avoid student loan payments. Other graduates have shared similar stories on Facebook groups and Reddit channels, expressing distress or seeking advice from peers.
Rising student loan debt has Pennsylvania state Rep. Dawn Keefer, R-York County, and other legislators worried. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said it's creating a crisis in higher education.
“The student-loan program is not only burying students in debt,” DeVos said at a November conference, “it is also burying taxpayers, and it’s stealing from future generations.”
With the exact resolution unknown, Keefer wonders if a possible fix lies just below the surface.
"I think it's a disservice to tell children that if you go to college, you'll be successful," Keefer said. "Maybe there is a better option, or maybe you just need to go to a trade school for what you want to do."
Not all student debt is bad, Keefer said. College could be the best investment a person makes.
But students need to be more strategic in picking majors that will lead to jobs that can pay back their loans, she said. They can also find ways to cut costs elsewhere — attending community college for the first few years or living at home.
"It comes down to making sure students are aware of their options and being practical," Keefer said.
If Albright could do things over again, he would have skipped the degree.
He would have taken a course online to learn about computer programming — "something like that, I guess."
"I've accepted that this is my life now," Albright said. "College ruined my life to the fullest extent, and my life is a constant reminder of that."
After defaulting on his payments for the last nine years, and with the amount of compound interest and fees he's racked up, it became clear Albright won't be returning to the United States anytime soon.
So, for now at least, he plans to continue the conversation.
Follow Sam Ruland on Twitter: @sam_ruland
This article originally appeared on York Daily Record: A college grad flees U.S. to avoid student loan debt: 'I had to escape this prison'