Earlier this week, in the aftermath of the college admissions scandal, I wrote about my own experience with college and student loans. After that post, many of you emailed me and relayed your own heartbreaking and ridiculous stories about student loans, and the shit you’ve put yourself through to pay them.
The stories ranged from people who grew up in working-class backgrounds to those who grew up relatively privileged, but the common theme was that making the decision to go to college has pretty much fucked us up financially—and sometimes physically, mentally, and emotionally as well.
Below are some of those stories. Everyone has been granted anonymity. Debt jubilee and free college now.
“I’m still $12,000 in the student loan hole and really only have some good credit and lifelong back and hip injuries to show for it.”
As an opinion piece, your writing on the real causes of the recent college fraud case were warming to hear, having nearly mirrored my entire set of circumstances. Poor parents, multiple bankruptcies while I was a child, FAFSA denials, taking on loans directly, studying journalism even!, and all the same details. Somehow though I decided at a young age that higher education would save me from those problems, and I worked to get into the University of Texas at Austin and only came out with $78,000.00 in loans because I graduated in three years. I am about four years your senior and graduated three weeks before the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in 2008 that started the crisis, and eventually within two years of not having a stable job in journalism (and even when I did, getting paid $8.00 an hour against $1000.00 in monthly loans), deciding that my best chance at ever getting out of the hole was the Army. I was staring down the barrel of an empty bank account of 12-months of unbroken unemployment at the age of 23, so I chose enlisting.
Six years and $60,000.00 in federal assistance for military enlistment later, I’m still $12,000.00 in the student loan hole and really only have some good credit and lifelong back and hip injuries to show for it. Really, I’m lucky it’s not worse, considering that the decision put me in the military, which at the time was a sane choice given the alternatives. Pretty insane set of alternatives to have ever faced.
“That first week, I laid in bed paralyzed that I’d find out my loan wasn’t approved and I’d be thrown out in front of everyone I’d just met on my freshman floor.”
I graduated high school right around the beginning of the recession. My parents are a step below working class; my mom works part time as a secretary and my dad has bounced around part time jobs and unemployment. For those reasons, their credit is awful. Cautioning against repeating their situation, my parents always demanded I go to college if at all possible. I, too, got rejected for Federal loans when I applied with them as cosigners. I was able to eventually get my grandmother to cosign the loans I needed to attend the private school to which I was accepted, but I didn’t find out I got approved for them until a week into the term. I actually moved into my dorm not knowing if I had the money to attend. That first week, I laid in bed paralyzed that I’d find out my loan wasn’t approved and I’d be thrown out in front of everyone I’d just met on my freshman floor.
Luckily, my loan was approved. But that put me in a different, equally precarious position: I now had a gun to my head to do well in school, graduate, and pay back my loans. If I didn’t, and if I defaulted on my loans, the student loan man would come after my grandmother’s meager fixed income.
Over the next few years of internships and freelancing for newspapers, I was able to find a full-time job writing, which is where I’m writing you from today. It’s maybe not the job I’d hoped for (I’ve always wished I could work full time as a journalist) but it at least allows me to stay ahead of my student loan payments and add a few more threads to support the sword of Damocles hanging over my and my grandmother’s head. I think that’s about as good of an outcome someone from my background could ask for.
“Even though I know it has nothing to do with my skill level, that it still feels like somehow I’ve failed.”
I was an incredibly lucky kid. The middle of 5 children, my parents both worked in private schools so my siblings and I were able to go to really premier college prep schools with large amounts of tuition remission—not fully free, but usually 50% or 25% of the full tuition amount. My siblings and I were taught to work extremely hard, and my parents made sure that neither they, nor the school, showed us any preferential treatment when it came to what we received. We all did just that, and excelled in many regards — giving back to every school community we were a part of by getting good grades and participating in a wide range of extra curricular activities.
When I was a senior, despite my parents uneasy feelings, I applied to and got admitted to both the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and my eventual alma mater Pratt Institute. I understandably was incredibly excited, and as a 17 year old, didn’t really understand what I was getting myself into. My parents had always explained to us that a large amount of money had been spent when my younger brother had cancer, so we were all more or less “on our own” when it came to paying for college — they would help us take out loans, but it was expected that we would pay them back on our own. Not truly realizing what my eventual bill for school would be, and with a $20,000/year scholarship that I thought would be game changing, I enrolled at Pratt Institute.
Fast-forward four years: during school, with the exception of being on family accounts for my phone and Netflix, along with flights back home for the holidays, I was entirely self sufficient.
About a week ago, I told all my friends I’d be leaving New York. My $160,000 of loans, many of them at above 6% interest rates, were becoming too much to handle. I’m doing better than most of my classmates with my salary, but between my Parent Plus Loans and my Government Unsubsidized and Subsidized loans, I pay $1200 every month. I’ve had to leave multiple jobs in search of someone who would pay me more money, taken on a second job as a volleyball coach, and picked up freelance design jobs here and there to try to make sure I have even a little bit of money at the end of each month to try to save.
I know it’s easy to look at a white male art and design student and say “You ARE the privileged one.” And you know what, I get that. I was insanely lucky to get the education that I got, insanely lucky that my parents were able to take out the loans they did, and insanely lucky that I was able to make the most of my experience at Pratt. But at the end of the day, Navient is charging me six point something percent interest on 4 different loans that I’ll be paying off for the next 30 years. And I’m pretty good at doing this job! I’ve had very successful people tell me that. I wish I had something more profound to say to end this, but all I can really muster is that it sucks. It sucks that I have to check my bank balance every three days in the hope that something may have changed for the better. It sucks that making enough money to be able to pay my loans means living in a city that makes it unaffordable to pay my loans. It sucks that I’m moving back across the country to move in with my mom, and that, even though I know it has nothing to do with my skill level, that it still feels like somehow I’ve failed. And most importantly, it sucks that so many people are in worse off situations than me without the option of moving back in with their parents to help out.
“Why did I take on this crazy debt? Because I do not want my sons to live like I did.”
I am 47. My loans are almost paid off. I have a BA, MA, and over 60 additional advanced college credits. For both degrees I owe only 5000 dollars as of today. However, I owe tens of thousands of dollars in parent loans for both of my children. They will both help me make the payments once they are more financially stable. (One of my sons has a very minimal loan amount and the other has much more as he is getting an advanced degree, fortunately in a field that will make paying off his debt easy).
Why did I take on this crazy debt? Because I do not want my sons to live like I did. When I die that debt disappears for them plain and simple.
“I did manage to graduate after 4 years, and about 52k in debt from loans. I can’t even begin to pay it.”
So mine is kind of unique. I’m a permanent resident of the US. I dropped out of high school when I was 17, had a minor bout of homelessness and then worked in a grocery store before coming to the US. Being white, no one asked me for proof of a high school diploma, so I kind of floated for years. After the company I worked for went bankrupt, I got my HSED, and then a few months later I googled my local state university and enrolled. I think I did a short essay and that was it to get in, a few standardized tests that were unremarkable. One of my parents is dead and the other is fairly poor, so I qualified for a ton of loans.
I did manage to graduate after 4 years and about 52k in debt from loans. I can’t even begin to pay it. I met my wife in college in the same courses I was taking, and we were both trying to get into medical school. Despite a similar application, she got in and I did not, so I am working and trying to apply again, and lacking in options otherwise beyond supporting her in our shared goals.
She was able to qualify for slightly less loans than I did because one of her parents became permanently disabled, so her undergraduate debt load is closer to $60k. Since she is in medical school she is on the hook for about 70k a year. Worth mentioning she does 95 percent of her studying at home, because the volume of content is so high it’s actually a waste of time to attend classes in person and just watch prerecorded lectures. We are both very glad; between the two of us we will have about $395k in student debt. At a time when there is also a significant shortage of physicians in this country, people who want to be a physician are throttled in getting in for legacy admissions, and also have to pay about an entire undergraduate degree worth per year to study at home.
“I called begging and pleading with them and got a slight reprieve for a larger payment later. I sucked it up. The calls stopped, for now.”
My parents weren’t rich, but wanted better for me and my brother. They worked their butts off to make it happen. They moved us when I was 5, back in ‘87, so that I would go to a good public school and graduate. At high school, my mother got laid off and had a hard time to find work. Time came to apply colleges and with my grades not being so hot and my extracurricular activities involving working at an automotive shop, there was not much to do but apply for loans and hope for the best.
I originally didn’t want to apply as I knew we didn’t have the money and thought learning a trade would be nice. My parents again wanted better and forced me to go to college.
Unfortunately, my credit was crap at 17/18. My parents were even worse, trying to make ends meet. We needed to ask one of our family friends to help us out by cosigning the loans. There we were, all signing for my loans to go to school, the second one in my family (first being my aunt at nursing school) to go to college.
I got in and 4 years later, 2004 at this time, I was hospitalized and found myself with $120k of student debt, not to mention hospital bills. Working with the company, it took my story of hospitalization, not able to work and no job market to try and convince them they will be paid later. It worked.... For a while.
Luckily, I found something to start paying bills as my COBRA was running out. Yah healthcare system!! I started working my butt off and trying to pay bills and still help support my parents as I still lived there.
2 years later, I met my wife and I needed to leave the house and be our own family unit. In the meantime, I was trying to grow out of my dead end job, but had a hard time finding work. I eventually found something, but had a risk as it was the same pay, better benefits, better opportunities. Eventually I took the job for better satisfaction and growth. However, times were hard due to our medical bills starting to pile up and I started missing loan payments.
God forbid you miss one payment. They hounded and harassed me for days on end, multiple times, including their outside collectors. Even worse, they started calling my parents and our family friend at the same time, harassing them. I called begging and pleading with them and got a slight reprieve for a larger payment later. I sucked it up. The calls stopped, for now.
Struggling to meet our bills, I would miss a payment on the due date and pay only a couple days later when I had it, but still within the grace period. Morning, noon, or night they call. They never stopped. Ever.
It took me moving to a different state and working my ass off to keep them at bay. I missed one payment as it skipped our minds and the phones rang off the hook and my mom yelled at me caused they kept calling them as well.
I just recently paid off my federal loans. I now have all private. My rates were low when I consolidated them, so I’m stuck with the rate I have and what I have to pay. Before I was paying $750 a month, now I’m down to $440. I could consolidate further and get lower payments, but I don’t want to pay when I’m 70. I just keep making payments as is. My fear is that if I should pass on from this mortal plane, my parents will be responsible. Old, retired and in my 70's, that’s the last thing I want. I also have all these missed payments and bad marks on my credit history. I’m trying hard to get rid of them, but that takes a long, long time. I now have children who I am trying to save up for them and do my damn best to not end up in my situation.
When I saw on the news [about] affluent parents buying their kids way into college, I knew that shit happens. It’s who you know, not what you know. It just sucks that people like me, people like you, people like us get screwed by the system. All we can do is sit back and sigh as no one wants to do anything. It’s frustrating and no matter how I vote or what I do, it will always be fucked.
“Even in my extreme situation, student loans still loom over my future as a constant source of anxiety and undermine any attempts at planning a financial sustainable future.”
I was the first in my family to graduate college and went on to get a PhD by the time I was thirty. In some ways I count myself lucky because even though I was putting myself through school, I didn’t have to take out any private loans. I did, however, have to take out nearly $80,000 in federal loans over the course of twelve years to survive. Though daunting, it all seemed practical, in part because I eventually secured a faculty position at a prestigious university with a healthy salary. I was living my dream (mostly) when disaster struck and I was disabled while working, only a few years into my career. I’m left with severe chronic pain, limited mobility, a permanent brain injury, and PTSD. It has been a wild ride traversing our dysfunctional health care system, workers compensation insurance, SSDI, and the like. By that, I mean it’s been rough, but I’m hanging in. A cherry on top was looking into the disability discharge for student loans, one of the only guaranteed ways to discharge them other than death. To qualify you must be totally and permanently disabled, then gather supporting documents and go through a lengthy screening process. This seemed like a good option until I found out that the discharged amount will count as taxable income to the IRS. So even if I prove that I qualify, I’ll be on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars which isn’t feasible. I’m currently on an income-based repayment plan, paying $0 a month since I can’t work, basically deferring the massive tax payment for twenty years. Even in my extreme situation, student loans still loom over my future as a constant source of anxiety and undermine any attempts at planning a financial sustainable future. I wish our country had better regulations and safety nets.
“I often think about how great it’d be if I was accidentally hit by a city bus so I could pay off my student loan debt.”
I don’t really have an interesting story here, just that it seems unhealthy that for the past decade when walking the city streets of Boston I often think about how great it’d be if I was accidentally hit by a city bus so I could pay off my student loan debt ($200k).
Of course the sad part isn’t the nature of the recurring thought, but that I’d probably need to get hit a few separate times to actually pay it all off.
“I wish student loans required that you complete some kind of financial education.”
I’m a 40 year old who will pay off my student loans in the next 5ish years with VERY aggressive payment strategies. I didn’t really think my story is that outstanding, but in some ways, maybe that’s what makes it so scary. Even scarier is the fact that my current student loan debt level is not even that appalling by today’s standards, and that it could have been so much worse had I made different decisions.
I entered college as a fairly talented student musician. I got into the Peabody Institute, but as my parents were an on again, off again employed telephone technician and a clerk at the county welfare office, that was absolutely not workable. At the last minute, I got accepted to the local commuter school. As a first generation college student, I had zero idea of what to realistically expect. Had my parents had more assets and better credit, it’s likely I’d have gone to Baltimore. But as my parents were basically at the time four years out from outright losing their house, that clearly wasn’t going to happen. Additionally, I left home abruptly because I could no longer deal with my dad’s explosive temper and it being physically turned on myself and my mom primarily. So, I was dealing with trauma, and I was going to start my college career at this school that was absolutely not my first choice. I kicked ass in my performance classes and shat all over my academic courses. The school kept giving me financial aid because As averaged with F’s give you about a 2.0 average. I made little progress towards my degree and ended up transferring to a state school in another state. That music school put a stop to my shenanigans, and I spent a year working.
I guess this is basically a really long way of saying that I kept getting offered money each semester, and while my loans were laid out in each package, not ONE of my financial aid packages outlined how much I had already borrowed, how much my expected monthly payment would be, and what my options were for paying while I was in school. Sure, you could find those things if you researched them, but most of us never even thought about it. I could kick myself. I wish I could go back and tell myself first of all, to deal with my trauma before trying to go to college, and secondly, to pay as much of my tuition each semester as possible, and failing that, pay SOMETHING, ANYTHING each month towards my loans. I wish student loans required that you complete some kind of financial education. I had to take a foreign language to graduate, why could I have not taken a basic personal finance class? I went back to school and took out about 15K in additional loans to finance a nursing degree, and I’ll have paid off that portion of my education before the summer is over. I view that expense as well worth it. What is truly sad is the fact that I would be interested in teaching nursing, but in order to do that, I’ll need a master’s degree at a minimum, and I’m just not willing to go into debt to do a job that would essentially offer a pay cut.