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A Look At Lives Transformed By the Student Debt Crisis
Illustration by Visual Generation via Getty Images

A Look At Lives Transformed By the Student Debt Crisis

Co-published by Economic Hardship Reporting Project and Teen Vogue.

Early on a Thursday morning in Jacksonville, Florida, Ryan Moran and his wife are chatting over breakfast. The couple talk finances, bills, monthly budgets, and the possibility of buying their first home.

The COVID-era federal student loan moratorium would have been a relief for their finances if not for the private student loan bill arriving like clockwork every month during the pause. Moran, 27, adds up several years of student loan payments — an especially deflating calculation countless borrowers have done — and realizes the amount he’s already paid his private lender is almost enough to have purchased the home where they live. Instead, the newlyweds are stuck renting and sharing their house with a roommate. Owning a home seems trapped in the distance, and starting a family seems even farther off.

Everyone in his generation got the same message, says Moran: Get into the best college you can, take out loans to cover the cost, and you’ll land a job that earns enough to pay them back and build a middle-class life. But when Moran took out his private student loans almost a decade ago, he never would have guessed they could derail his life this much.

“As a 17-year-old, I had no idea about federal versus private loans and the government protections that come with federal loans and not private loans,” Moran tells Teen Vogue. “It’s a predatory industry in the first place to make a 17-year-old make a long-term bet on themselves as to where they’ll be financially 10, 20 years down the road.”

Over the decades, millions of young Americans have made this same bet. Of the students who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in the 2021–2022 school year, 49% graduated from public, four-year schools with an average federal debt burden of $20,700 and 52% graduated from private, nonprofit, four-year schools with an average burden of $22,200. The companies servicing those loans, which have seen dozens of lawsuits accusing them of coercingharassing, and misleading borrowers, stacked the deck against student debtors even more. Exorbitant interest rates leave others making payments on a debt that just keeps expanding. Today, the crisis has snowballed to more than 43.2 million borrowers owing an unfathomable $1.6 trillion to the federal government. The figure balloons to $1.73 trillion when private loans are included, according to the Federal Reserve.

Still, just like Moran, going to college felt like a given for Raelyn Roberson. Her family never discussed how they’d pay for it, a reluctance to talk about money she attributes, in part, to being from a Black southern household. Now she’s the third generation in her family to have student loan debt with the federal government.

When the Biden administration’s plan to address the student debt crisis first made headlines, her reaction was a mix of skepticism and confusion. “It’s just so much disillusionment with everything happening,” she says. “I am not giving you all money until you figure out what you’re doing. Because there’s entirely too much confusion across the board for everyone.”

Looking to the upcoming presidential election, debt relief remains a top priority for young voters, according to a March poll from Protect Borrowers Action. In the fall of 2022, President Biden’s long-awaited proposed solution to the debt crisis was sidelined by an onslaught of lawsuits and ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court in 2023. In the year since, the White House has boosted the Department of Education’s revamped and expanded SAVE Plan, and made headway on a number of much-needed student loan-related and college cost-related adjustments. They’ve also used targeted measures to cancel outstanding student loan balances for select groups of borrowers, totaling, as of publication, around $160 billion in canceled debt impacting 4.6 million debtors as of April 2024, according to the White House. (For those keeping count at home, that comes to 10% of the country’s total federal student loan burden and 10.6% of all federal student debtors.)

A more sweeping plan B, announced in April, purportedly would help another 26 million Americans. If enacted as proposed, the measures would completely cancel the debt balance of more than four million debtors, ensure at least $5,000 in debt relief for more than 10 million, and wipe away all accrued interest for 23 million.

As they wait to see what will happen with the Biden administration’s plan and the 2024 election, millions of Americans with student debt continue to manage as best they can. Many are putting off getting married, having children, or purchasing a home. Some borrowers face the reality of paying down a student loan balance for a degree they didn’t complete. Others, like several people we spoke to for this story, are organizing with the Debt Collective. Here are some of their stories.

 

PRIVATE LOANS

RYAN MORAN, 27, Jacksonville, Florida

$98,000 in federal and private student loans

Moran, a nursing graduate from the University of North Florida, works overtime every week and still lives paycheck to paycheck. That’s because half of Moran’s take-home income goes to pay student loans. Specifically, it’s going toward “aggressively” paying down the $90,000 private student loan he took out in 2015, which came with a suffocating 6.3% interest rate. By the time he graduated, the unpaid interest had driven the total to $111,000 and left him with a minimum monthly payment of $1,450. His federal loans were a different story.

Student Debt Stories: High Interest, Debt Strikes, Generational Debt, and More“I was the first person to go to college in the 21st century in my family. Everybody else had taken out a loan here or there to help with college in the ’80s and ’90s, but the crisis has ballooned so much in the past two or three decades that the situation we’re facing today is not really comparable. I didn’t realize that the interest rates would be much higher or that I wouldn’t be able to refinance in due time. [The original private loan amount] was $90,000. I had to go to a private lender in the first place [because] we maxed out the amount of federal loans that I was able to take out year by year. By the time I graduated, since I hadn’t been making payments on that during school, it was $111,000. It increased by about 25% just during the time I was in school, which is also something that a 17-year-old doesn’t really think about.

“I’ve been making much more than the minimum payment on [my private student loans] throughout the pandemic pause for the federal [loans], and basically just working overtime to try to get the balance down. I did about a full year of paying the minimum payment on my [private] loans, and because of all the interest built up during college, the balance probably went down $4,000 in an entire year of paying that monthly bill. I decided to basically not have any savings and pay $3,000 a month toward the private. And I’ve been doing that for the past 15 months on a nurse’s salary in Jacksonville, Florida. It’s not great. The amount that I’ve paid in private loans just this year would have fully covered my entire federal loan debt.

“I met my wife here when I was bartending while attending school. We’re newlyweds, but we’re still living with roommates. We don’t really have a choice. And starting a family is even further away, and there’s obviously time constraints on that, so it’s all very stressful.”

“Basically, everything that I [could have been] saving — which could have been the down payment for a house, emergency fund, building an early retirement fund, things like that — went completely out the window, and everything basically went to the loan payment. If I’m able to keep this up for maybe another year and a half or two years, the private loan balance will be gone, hopefully.

“I didn’t exactly expect a successful plan to come from somebody [like President Biden] who helped architect the student loan crisis in the first place. But my exact first reaction was that means testing always fails. I knew that by making it the $10,000–$20,000 of relief, it was going to open up a can of worms for conservative law firms to pounce on it. And by not making it completely universal and full federal debt relief, by making an application, it opened up a can of worms for so many technical difficulties. It blocks out entire sectors of people who don’t have regular access to news or the internet.

“With the moratorium extended multiple times, we [got] to the point where it will have been three and a half years since the last required federal loan payment was made. There [are] no monkeys falling from the sky, and it’s not raining cats and dogs, and the government is still intact. It does not seem like it was necessary to keep the government afloat to start requiring federal payments again. If these are all federal loans, the government already paid for the education of all these people. They can’t take that away. It’s not like a car or a house or something. I don’t understand why it can’t just be a public good.”

 

GENERATIONAL DEBT

RAELYN ROBERSON, 23. Washington, DC (originally from Houston)

$27,836.76 in federal student loans

In 1972, Roberson’s grandmother went to nursing school for just $500. In fact, the first time she took out any student loans was in the form of a Parent PLUS Loan for her daughter, Roberson’s mother, to go to college in the ’90s. Roberson’s mother also took out student loans to pay for her schooling, and years later, took out her own Parent PLUS Loan to support Roberson’s degree. Roberson graduated in 2021 — five decades and two generations after that $500 nursing degree — with a federal student loan balance of $27,836.76 and a $183 monthly bill.

Student Debt Stories: High Interest, Debt Strikes, Generational Debt, and More“I was completely in the dark about [student loans and taking on debt]. Financial situations aren’t something that [we] talked about. I feel like that’s a very southern Black thing, you just don’t talk about [finances]. Even though I could feel the financial strain and tension, I’d never ask how is anyone paying for it. In the FAFSA portal, I [had] to take the little quiz, ‘Do you understand what a loan is?’ I didn’t, but I somehow fulfilled it and took out my loan. [I] basically just did it because my parents said, ‘You’re going to college. It’s fine.’ I’m the oldest sister and the oldest cousin, so I was the first in my generation of the family figuring it out.

“My mother has a myriad of debt because she’s also a cancer survivor. She was paying off [her student debt], and when she got her cancer diagnosis and had to start chemotherapy and started paying her medical debt, she was not able to afford her student debt anymore. It defaulted, she went into delinquency, and then her amount doubled. She also has credit card debt.

“My granny was a nurse at a nursing home facility, so she was not making a whole lot of money. My mom knew that the [Parent PLUS Loan] payment was coming for her mother and [my granny] wouldn’t ask for the help. My grandmother would just send what she could to my mom in checks. It was usually disguised as holiday presents.

“I was still in college [at St. Edward’s University when the moratorium was announced]. I [told my mom] and she [was] like, ‘I don’t believe it.’ I had to keep showing her articles. It was more exciting for me because I felt the financial weight of like, ‘Oh goodness, my sister is about to go to college.’ And I know that I’m probably going to be asked to help with a significant amount of that. So, I was hoping that maybe this relief would allow my mom the time to get some of her debt in order so it wouldn’t have to be as heavy on me.

“As someone who does a lot of political policy education and work, I was also very skeptical. Because when it rolled out, it was saying something along the lines of, ‘Oh, this is going to help Black debtors a lot, especially those who did some of their schooling and didn’t finish it.’ A lot of us had private loans because we went to private schools, so we had federal and private loans through our schools. I was really skeptical about how that was supposed to help out the Black community, but I was just relieved for some sort of debt relief.

“My mom was very relieved because [the Parent PLUS Loans were] a huge [monthly] payment. She didn’t have enough liquid [cash] for a $300 emergency. When she realized that she didn’t have to make those payments, that’s when we started doing a few of the home improvements. That’s when we also saw her going on trips a little bit more and she started going to meet friends. It opened her up to have a little bit more freedom. I could definitely see a little bit of the relief.

“When Biden’s student debt relief plan was announced, the conversation with my mom was very much like, ‘Is that real? I don’t know if it’s real.’ And I’m like, ‘No, I promise it’s real. Here’s a link to the White House website.’ She read it and she’s like, ‘Does this count for my loans?’ I was trying to do some investigative work into that and came up with a big, ‘I don’t know.’ It was just a little bit too confusing for anyone to come out of that with a real plan besides, ‘We’re not having to pay right now, so we can breathe for right now.’ I think it’s how everyone left that conversation. We were waiting for those emails that were supposed to go out [approving our application for Biden’s student debt relief plan]. I didn’t get this email. My mom didn’t get this email. It’s all very confusing and it feels a little bit arbitrary [as to] who got them. I’m still very confused about that whole situation.”

 

DEBT BUT NO DEGREE

GJONI SHPATI, 24, San Diego

$29,000 in federal student loans

Like countless other students around the country, Gjoni Shpati struggled to adjust to the new challenges, frustrations, and expectations of virtual college classes during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, he opted to leave school in the spring of 2020, near the end of his junior year. With an outstanding federal student loan debt of $29,000 and a monthly bill of $430, Shpati joins the millions of Americans who have student debt but no degree.

Student Debt Stories: High Interest, Debt Strikes, Generational Debt, and More“I am a first-generation Albanian-American. Growing up, my parents didn’t really teach me much about finances. I went into it really blind, really not thinking about my future and having to pay it back. A lot of people in my high school were getting into these great colleges that were really expensive. There were certain places when I saw the price tag I was like, that is insane. But for the majority of the colleges I was looking at, it was in that $20,000 range, so I wasn’t really thinking about affordability. I was just thinking about actually going someplace that I thought was a good school, that I thought would actually be worth an investment. A lot of my friends come from low-income [households]. I’m pretty blessed that my parents were able to pay at least half of my tuition [at the University of California–Santa Barbara].

“I was in school for three years. I started in 2017. Around April of 2020, it was probably a good month and a half into quarantine, and we had online classes. I was already struggling a bit with taking all those online classes and just being at home. The fact that I could just get up from my computer and walk away, honestly, it was affecting my grades. Then [the straw that broke] the camel’s back for me was I had a math professor and he asked that we fax him our homework. I didn’t have a fax machine. Staples was closed. I didn’t have anywhere to go. I’m over here really pissed off because all my grades are terrible. Now he’s asking me to fax over my homework. Literally, at that moment, I was like, I can’t do this anymore. So, I dropped out. At the time, I knew a lot of friends who also [felt] the same way about taking online classes. They felt like they weren’t really learning or getting a good education. A lot of them thought about [dropping out] but didn’t really go for it. For the first year, it was pretty okay. But then once my peers started graduating, I started feeling a little bit insecure about dropping out. To this day, I still feel weird about not having a degree.

“Thankfully, I was able to defer my payments for another year. I’m not in school right now but I plan on going back in the next few months. If I were paying, it would be around $430 or so [a month]. I signed up for one of the repayment plans online right when they announced that payments were going to resume. I’m not entirely sure [which plan], but I logged onto FAFSA, and I saw that there was one there. Honestly, I didn’t even care about reading any of the information. I just did not want to pay at all.

“I definitely had a lot of anxiety [waiting for each moratorium extension], but I tried not to think too much about it. A lot of my friends have loans so it would become the topic of conversation. We would poke jokes at it, send a little meme in the group chat or something. But in reality, we all were really stressed out about it and we just didn’t want to say anything.

“I recently just moved to San Diego. I made the mistake of not looking at the prices of San Diego when I moved here, and apparently it’s the most expensive county in California. I am living in a micro-studio, essentially, and it is about $1,850 a month after utilities and everything. As of right now, I have my rent, and then I have a gym membership that’s $125 a month. I have my credit card bills, but that just varies on what I spend. I have my subscriptions, like HBO Max [and] Netflix. I have my internet bill that’s $100 a month. I also have a bunch of random subscriptions from iTunes that I never canceled for some reason. I try to reserve at least around $2,400 a month for my bills and rent and everything. I’m working at Gucci as a full-time client advisor. I am also trying to also get a real estate license so I could do that on the side. I’m trying to find anything at the moment that can provide another stream of income.

“When I first heard about [Biden’s student debt relief plan], I took it all with a grain of salt because everything was changing so much. Biden said that he was going to forgive the debt for certain students. I was like, I feel it’s not going to be for everybody. I knew that there would be some weird qualifications. I knew there was going to be something attached to it. I did apply [for Biden’s student debt relief plan, but] I didn’t get anything back.”

 

ON DEBT STRIKE

PAUL BERLET, 24, Wilmington, Delaware

$25,000 in federal student loans

Since graduating from Kutztown University of Pennsylvania in 2022 with a degree in secondary English education, Paul Berlet hasn’t paid back a dime of his student loans. He’s on debt strike, as are countless others around the country, and he plans to stay on strike for as long as he can. Berlet signed up for Biden’s SAVE plan when his income was low enough to qualify for $0 monthly payments. Knowing his income would increase, he enrolled in graduate school earlier than he’d planned to secure in-school deferment as a part-time student while working as a middle school teacher. Managing grad school with a full-time job might be challenging, but for Berlet, the strike is worth it.

Student Debt Stories: High Interest, Debt Strikes, Generational Debt, and More“Both my parents went to college. It was something I knew I had to do. Big quotes around ‘had to,’ but I didn’t really understand much about the money. I grew up middle class and my parents were not able to pay for school, so I needed to take out federal loans. I wanted to be a teacher, so I had to take out the loans. It always really scared me that I was taking out this debt before I had anything to my name. It is insane to me that we make people who want to serve society, like teachers, doctors, nurses, public servants, and social workers go into debt to be able to serve the public.

“My rent is half my take-home income at $1,280 a month. My biweekly paycheck is $1,300. While it doesn’t seem like a lot, that $250 [per month that I’m not paying in student loans] really does allow me to get groceries or to pay my car bill. I very much am living paycheck to paycheck. I’m able to save maybe $50 to $100 a month. My car bill is $380. My groceries probably run about $150, $200 a month. But between groceries, rent, and my car bill, I don’t have very much discretionary income.

“I haven’t repaid [my loans] at all, actually. And my version of debt strike is continuing to not pay as long as I can. A debt strike is just not paying your debt. Whether that’s by not paying and ignoring the phone calls or whether that’s by finding a way that you don’t have to pay… I would consider everybody who’s on the same plan for $0, everybody who’s in default, everybody that is whatever, [I’d consider them] on debt strike.

“I’ve been involved in the Debt Collective. One of my best friends is an organizer with them and I was skeptical at first, and he said, ‘Hey Paul, you don’t need to be a debt striker. You don’t need to go and do anything crazy. Just find a way to not pay your loans. You already know you can’t pay them. So there’s all these things that they put in place, all these loops, all these hoops to jump through. Jump through some of them and see if you can get yourself to not have to pay.

“I can’t imagine myself ever starting to pay. At some point, the consequences will start to happen. I can only stay in school for so long. But they rely on the shame of having this debt to get you to pay it. I was seriously considering not buying pencils for my students this year, or colored pencils, or markers because I need that money. I’m able to do that now because I’m on pause, but it’s still not easy.

“In February of 2020, I was in a ski accident and I ended up getting an amputation. At that point, I was still in college. I had debt and I also had a whole lot of medical debt. The money that I owed when I left the hospital was $250,000. Definitely before that, I was a little ashamed of the debt. And now I’m in debt that I’m never going to be able to pay back — ever [because] I’m a teacher, [and I’m] like, ‘Well, honestly, f**k it. It’s not happening.’ I’m able to talk to other people who are disabled and in crazy medical debt, or teacher colleagues deciding to go back to school or not to go back to school, or to stay in a job they don’t like so [their student debt] gets forgiven. Talking about that stuff, I think, brings down that level of shame.

“I tried my best to live within my means. Are there things that I maybe would buy if this burden of debt wasn’t on me? Yeah, but it’s not so much the material possessions. I think it’s the mental health. I’m really nervous about being able to stay in grad school. I can’t risk messing this up. I am literally two paychecks away from not being able to pay my rent and then my car. And I’m fortunate that I have a family I could go back to, but Jesus Christ, I don’t want to do that. I love living down here. I love the community that I’ve been able to build in Delaware.

“For every one of me, there are 500 other people who are in default and don’t have the language and they’re ashamed and they don’t want to say anything. We’re raised to feel shame [around debt], and I wonder if a lot of that is people remembering [when] they had to sacrifice because of debt and saying, ‘I had to do this, so why aren’t you [doing this too]?’ I think a lot of that comes from misplaced rage, right? Or they were raised with the ethic of, ‘I got to do this [as] a moral thing.’ I think that’s something that our country has done: We made financial burdens a moral issue.

“[To other student debtors considering going on debt strike], I’d say the shame does not come from you. The shame comes from the society we live in. And you can throw that away. Find your community and know that again, you’re not alone. And you should help others too because you have power.”

 

Jacqui Germain was the 2022 Economic Security Project senior fellow at Teen Vogue. Jacqui is a St. Louis-based journalist, trained organizer and poet, whose work has appeared in outlets including The Nation, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Elle, The New Inquiry and Vice.

Save An Endangered Species: Journalists

Jacqui Germain was the 2022 Economic Security Project senior fellow at Teen Vogue. Jacqui is a St. Louis-based journalist, trained organizer and poet, whose work has appeared in outlets including The Nation, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Elle, The New Inquiry and Vice.

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