By De Elizabeth
The phrase “student debt crisis” is everywhere these days, and for good reason: 45 million borrowers owe almost $1.6 trillion in the U.S. alone — and the situation is getting worse. Financial experts predict that the collective debt might reach $2 trillion by the year 2021, as it is growing approximately $20 billion each quarter.
There are many different layers to the horrors of student debt: on a national scale, the growing mountain of loans impacts the economy in a host of ways, especially as an increasing amount of borrowers are expected to default on loans in the next few years. More and more young people are in debt, and they’re understandably spending less money on all sorts of things, ranging from retail goods to weddings to homes. That not only affects the U.S. economy immediately, it also forces young people to put their own dreams on hold, whether they are looking to start a business of their own or take a chance on a dream job with a salary that doesn’t allow them to make their monthly payments.
Many contenders in the race toward the 2020 presidential election believe they know how to help stem the fiscal nightmare at hand. Democratic candidates such as Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have plans for widely canceling student debt; others, like former Representative Beto O’Rourke and Senator Kamala Harris, have more specific proposals for people who meet certain requirements. Despite varying differences in execution, the common thread seems to be an understanding that something has got to give; the status quo cannot continue.
But the debt crisis is so much more than the bottom line; it’s personal. And while it can be easy to get caught up in astronomical figures, that means a lot of the conversation overlooks the ways in which debt intangibly affects people’s everyday lives. While the federal standard repayment plan suggests most students can or will pay off their loans in 10 years, the reality is that it takes much longer for many people, especially if a loan features high interest rates or if someone is struggling to meet the monthly minimum payment. An ever-present reminder of debt can create a domino effect, and prevent people from making big life decisions — and all of that can affect mental health, too. A 2013 study published by Northwestern University found consistent correlations between high debt and higher levels of depression and stress, along with self-reported health problems.
MTV News spoke with several current students and recent graduates about their concerns, fears regarding student debt. Despite a variety of educational paths, all of the participating students echoed similar what-ifs: What if I can’t pay off the debt? What if I run into a medical emergency that I cannot afford because of my loan payments? What if my entire future is derailed simply because I wanted to go to college? For these young people — and many others — debt is not just a number; it is a heavy burden felt on a day-to-day basis, one that dictates the present as much as it does the future.
Jen is a 25-year-old living in Boston, Massachusetts. She graduated from Messiah College in 2016 as a journalism major. Collectively, she borrowed a total of $72,000, in both private, and direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans. Three years into the repayment process, she still owes $54,000, after refinancing her private loans to decrease her monthly payments.
On the constant stress surrounding her loans: I have fears of never paying off the debt or having something unexpected come up that could cause me to be in debt for longer. I am upset about not having the same life opportunities as my peers; I have several friends with no debt at all, and it makes me feel like a failure. They get to save more money than I do, as so much of my income goes towards my loans.
Schools need to do a better job of explaining the impact of loans to students while they’re still in high school. I made too many heavy decisions at ages 17 and 18 just to get an education.
On how student loans have affected her present — and future: My loans have impacted every area of my life since graduation. I would love to join the Peace Corps, travel and work internationally for a year or two, move to another city, or go to graduate school, but all of those goals seem out of reach because I am starting from a place of what I see as ‘negative’ money. My debt has also impacted the jobs I apply for, because I need a salary high enough to cover my minimum payments in addition to my living expenses.
I am supposed to have my loans paid off by 2029, but I am hoping I can get them paid off before then. To keep myself motivated, I remind myself that I'll only be in my mid-30s by then, so I'll still have plenty of ‘life’ to live, but at the same time, I might have other large debts to pay off, like those related to homes or maybe children.
On what schools should do to help students navigate this process: I think education in general should be more affordable. But schools need to do a better job of explaining the impact of loans to students while they’re still in high school. I made too many heavy decisions at ages 17 and 18 just to get an education.
Angie is a 24-year-old living in Nashville, Tennessee. She graduated from Belmont University in 2016 with a BBA in Music Business & Public Relations. She owes a total of $158,652 in direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans, and private loans. Her mother also took out a parent PLUS loan in her name, but Angie is solely making payments after declaring forbearance twice when her mother was laid off from work. Angie has three separate payments for her loans, the longest of which is scheduled to take 27 years to pay off in full — without considering interest.
On sacrifices she’s made in order to keep up with her payments: When my loans entered repayment, I had to take on a second job to make ends meet. Several times I had to choose to buy my dog's food while I ate ramen noodles for a week. I pay about the same each month for rent as I do student loans. I make decent money on paper, but I have very little ‘extra money’ after all these loans and bills are paid. I expect this to be how my life is until these are paid off — just paycheck to paycheck, trying to get by.
On the growing fear upon leaving college: I was terrified for the payments to start. I saw my balance and was so overwhelmed. I was afraid that the payments would be too much for how much money I was making, and I was already living in one of the cheapest places in the city. There weren't many other ways I could cut corners and save, but it still didn't seem like enough. Looking back, my school made it seem very easy and affordable, that this would be an easy and harmless process. They have not offered any help post-graduation.
On the regrets she feels about planning for her education: I wish I’d set a limit for how much I would borrow. If I didn't get enough financial aid from a school, I should have gone somewhere else. I turned down a full ride to another school to now have over $150,000 in debt. I feel like an idiot, but my mom and I both thought this was the best decision at the time.
On the assumptions we make about college in general: This generation has such massive debts because we were told we had to go to college to get a job. Our parents believed this, too. They sent us to these schools, accepted this debt, thinking it would be the right thing in the end. I only know a handful of people who actually have jobs related to their degrees.
Nora is a 23-year-old who graduated from West Chester University in 2018 as a communications major. She is currently living in New Jersey, where she is repaying a total of $156,641, from direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans, and private loans. She feels she cannot afford to move out of her parents’ home because of her debt.
On the circumstances that led to her loans: I’m the youngest of four, so there was no money for me to go to college. Loans seemed like the only option. I chose where I went to school, but I should have considered more affordable options. I think it would have made more sense to take a gap year before making such a huge decision.
On how her debt currently rules her life: I budget like crazy and I work full-time. I would like to get a side gig, but I just don’t have time. By the time my loans are gone, I’ll be 30 and might be trying to settle down. I’ve seen my older siblings go through the same thing with pushing off having weddings, buying homes, and having kids. Being able to live at home rent-free is a blessing; I don’t know what I would do if my parents couldn’t help me.
On her worst-case scenario: I’m afraid of one day losing my job and not being able to make payments. I’m currently building an emergency fund to save me from going into forbearance if something were to happen. I also know that any medical emergency could financially ruin me at any moment. I feel like I’m walking on a trapeze, and I could slip at any second.
On her dreams for young people of the future: Higher education should be accessible to everyone. Loan providers should not even be part of the process. Interest is predatory and profits off of naïve teenagers. I would be interested in public service loan forgiveness or interest-free payments. I also wish colleges would take more concern in paying for textbooks and teacher salaries. I would rather schools invest in the quality of my education and the professors providing it, rather than stadiums or new food vendors.
Rafy is a 22-year-old currently living in Orlando, Florida. She graduated from Syracuse University in 2019 where she studied Writing & Rhetoric. Despite receiving a need-based federal grant as well as University grants and scholarships that covered 90% of her educational cost, she still owes $18,000 in direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans. As she nears the repayment process, Rafy fears the impending bills as she is currently unemployed. Her repayment plan is projected to take 10 years.
On how financial assistance impacted her college planning: I knew I didn’t want to take out more than around $20,000 [in loans]. I felt comfortable that my projected salary would be able to handle that amount without swallowing me whole for most of my adult life. I was only willing to accept loans if the grants I obtained seriously outweighed the amount of loans I’d have to take out. I was fortunate it worked out that well.
On the mental bandwidth allocated to her debt: My loans are literally all I think about, especially considering my unemployed status. I am constantly worried about making my payments, how my failure to not pay them on time will ruin my credit, and my potential to rent an apartment or buy a car I would love to go to grad school, but I know I won’t feel comfortable accumulating more debt until my current ones are paid up. I think it’ll impact my relationships with people, the cities I’ll consider moving to, and the way I navigate the beginning of my career.
I think it’ll impact my relationships with people, the cities I’ll consider moving to, and the way I navigate the beginning of my career.
On the domino effect of debt itself: I’m petrified that I’ll never pay off my loans at all. That the accumulated interest will continue to grow if I’m only able to contribute to the baseline. It frustrates me that I’ll end up paying so much more back than I originally borrowed. I keep telling myself that I can’t get any credit card debt while my student loans exist. I’ll only allow myself to dig myself out of one hole at a time if I can help it.
On navigating the financial aid process: My school administrators were horrible in navigating financial literacy when it came to paying for school. The hoops they wanted students to jump through, the level of knowledge they expected students to have, all of it was unreasonable. I probably know more than the average student about funding college, just because I spent so much time researching my own options. But many students didn’t have that same opportunity to learn.
Joshua is a first-year PhD student at Purdue University where he is studying Organic Chemistry. Previously, he attended Framingham State University for undergrad. For his education, he took out direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans, as well as private loans, in total of $39,000 — but with interest, the collective money he owes is $42,000.
On his educational journey after graduating high school: I didn't consider community college at the time, because my original plan was to enter medical school and they prefer all four years at the same institution. I chose to go to the least expensive state school in Massachusetts because I knew I would have to pay for college on my own. I wouldn't have been able to attend college without student loans.
On the uncertainty of debt: I'm concerned that the interest on my private loan will cause my total debt to double while pursuing my PhD. But I had to figure out all of this on my own. My parents both had a lot of experience in finance; however, they worked with personal loans and not school loans, and I wish I had been better informed about how loans for education worked.
On the benefits of attending a state college: I feel that I made the right choice attending Framingham State [for undergrad]. I was lucky to be in an extraordinarily engaging academic environment that was only one third of the cost, compared to other institutions in my area…. I genuinely believe that attending a small university was the reason I was able to make it into a top-tier chemistry PhD program.
On how his debt impacts other potential milestones ahead: I’m worried that my school loan payments will significantly diminish my quality of life for quite some time, even though I expect to enter a high paying field. [I’m concerned about] my credit score if I’m unable to find a job right after my studies end. While I have no desire to have children during my PhD studies, I would like to be stable enough to have them [in the future] if I changed my mind. But with that debt constantly accruing interest, I’m worried that I might have to postpone having children longer than I wish because of the financial burden. And who can confidently purchase a home while already having the cost of a home hanging over them?
On the disconnect between U.S. leaders and the realities of American students: Our elected officials are so far out of touch with the rest of society; they don't realize the struggles that the everyday American goes through. We are living paycheck to paycheck, and using every extra dollar we have to better not only our futures, but the futures of the ones we hold dear to us.
Tamiracle is a second-year grad student at the University of South Florida where she is studying Digital Journalism and Design; she also attended USF for undergrad. For both college and grad school, she borrowed a total of nearly $24,000, and her parents are currently helping her pay off her debt.
On the ways finances dictated her educational path: When planning for higher education, [my family and I] used the cost of attendance to determine that it would be best for me to stay in-state for college. My loan debt would be tripled had I attended an out-of-state school. My parents then allowed me to choose a school that included the resources I needed to be successful.
On incorporating debt into her life: I am nervous [about repaying my loans]. My undergrad repayment is $173 a month, but that number will increase once my grad loans are included in that amount. I estimate that my loan payments will eventually be between $250 and $300 per month, and I don’t know how I will fit that into my budget, given my current income. My other concern is making sure I can create a budget where I’m not only able to make payments, but sustain my current lifestyle.
I fear I will eventually have to choose between making payments towards my loans, or putting the little extra money I have left over into my savings account in case of an emergency.
On the steep learning curve of the process: During undergrad, I irresponsibly accepted the full amount [available], thinking about the check I would receive. Now as a grad student I only accept enough to cover my tuition and textbooks. If I could get an undergrad do-over, I’d only borrow money to cover my tuition & fees, on-campus housing, and textbooks. I would also elect to live in a cheaper on-campus housing option to save more money. My [undergrad] on-campus housing and meal plan cost more than my grad tuition.
On paying it forward: My parents and I figured out [financial aid] as we went. My mother keeps detailed notes of my student loans and monthly payments. I used magazine articles and YouTube videos on student loans to get a better understanding of different concepts. This has allowed me to help my other family members who are now heading off to college.
On how debt makes it difficult to plan for emergencies: Shortly after my undergrad, I ran into some car troubles that basically wiped out my savings account. My income is enough to cover my rent and monthly expenses, and I typically have a few extra dollars that I can put into my savings account each month after bills are paid. But I fear I will eventually have to choose between making payments towards my loans, or putting the little extra money I have left over into my savings account in case of an emergency.
Tyler is a high school junior from California. He lives with his mother and younger brother, and is currently exploring state school options like UCLA and California Polytechnic State University for his college education. Because of his family’s financial situation, he estimates that he will likely take out between $50,000 and $75,000 in loans, but with the hope of someday attending medical or law school, he knows that his total debt will likely be much higher.
On the ways he and his peers are making their college decisions: Even though I’ve just started [planning for college], I can already tell that [finances] are going to be a deciding factor — it's just how it is. A lot of my friends are doing the same thing. It's mostly about money instead of the right fit or a school that you think is best, which is sort of sad.
On the difficulty to grasp the concept of debt when it isn’t immediate: I’ve seen stories of people repaying loans for decades or not being able to afford other things, and I don't want that to happen to me. I also worry about not being able to find a high enough paying job to repay my loans on time; or, what if something bad happens and I need money for an emergency? It's tempting to try not to worry about any of it because I’m still in high school now and all of that is so far away. But I think that’s how a lot of people get roped into borrowing more; they don’t think about it at the time. And then graduation comes and it hits them.
On varying degrees of support from others: My high school has done a few information sessions about student loans, which has been sort of helpful, but sometimes can be overwhelming and confusing. My mom is supportive because she wants me to get a good education; she is pushing me to follow my dreams and major in whatever I want. But I know that I'm the one who is going to have to repay my loans at the end.
On the unfair prices of higher education: Some of us really want to learn, and education is really important to us. But some of us have to choose between money and learning and that's not fair. Everyone should be able to access knowledge if they want it.
These interviews have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.