What It’s Like to Have $163,718 of Student Debt When You’re Living Paycheck to Paycheck

The story of Arthur Stallworth, age 36, from Silver Spring, Maryland.

Illustration of Arthur Stallworth
Olivia Fields

This is part of Debt Nation, a series of interviews with people about how student loans have shaped their lives. Read the rest here.

Education: Bachelor’s in psychology, master’s in biomedical sciences, and a doctorate of education
Current job: Student adviser and lecturer at American University
Household income: $125,000
Relationship status: Married with three children, twin 13-year-old stepdaughters and a 4-month-old son
Peak student debt: $163,718.20
Current student debt: $163,718.20

If all my student loan debt were wiped out tomorrow, I would try to get a house. When I was in my bachelor days, my priorities were different. I just recently had to trade my Mustang in. Now I want to get one of those again, so that would be on the list, but it would be lower on the list.

My income is not reliable right now. I’ve got a family. So it’s myself, my wife, and our new baby, and my wife has twins. They’re 13. We’re in a two-bedroom apartment, and these girls need their space. And our baby was born on March 1. So I know I have to get a place that’s bigger and I’m already living paycheck to paycheck. I had figured I was going to keep putting myself into forbearance until I could get a big boost in money, which I haven’t been able to find at the moment. I’m trying to figure out gig work. I teach sessions of a freshman seminar course.

I went to Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. I got a full ride, but one of the stipulations was that you can’t work the first year. The scholarship covered your tuition and room and board, but it didn’t cover your books. I didn’t have a computer or nothing like that. So that’s when I started learning about loans. I’m essentially a first-generation student. My father only attended a semester or so and then dropped out. My mom, she was 18 when she married my dad and had me, so she didn’t go to college right away. Later on, she ended up going to community college here and there. They had a little bit of experience, but I was kind of just on my own.

So when I found out about loan stuff, I was like, “Oh, OK. I’ll just take out a little bit, and that will cover my books, and I’ll be able to get a computer.” Toward the end of my undergrad, I probably had about $7,000 in student loans. I got a bachelor’s in psychology. I was doing biomedical research and my mentor recommended I go into a Ph.D. program. Halfway through, I decided I didn’t really want to do research, so I finished up and got my master’s. When I was done with that, around ’09, my loan was probably around $20,000. Then I’m working for about three years, and my mentor says, “You should consider going back into some type of doctorate program.” So I was like, “You know what? She’s right.” My school offered an online doctorate of education and interdisciplinary leadership.

I started the doctorate, and I wasn’t paying attention to the cost of it at all. I was still working. Halfway through, I reached the point where I was really, really done with Nebraska. I was always in PWIs [predominantly white institutions]. At first you don’t really recognize that stuff, but then people say things like, “You don’t have any hair.” No, I have a fade. But they don’t know what a fade is. 

The last, last straw was in 2012, when I went to Chicago to go visit a friend and somehow I got a pulmonary embolism. It was horrible. I came back to Omaha, and I went straight to the hospital. It was one of those things where I could have died. I’m asthmatic, and I’ve had a couple of near-death experiences, but that one I was like, “OK, I’m not going to die in Nebraska.” I went to Atlanta and then New Mexico for a little bit. I ended up in Las Vegas.

When I finished the online doctorate in 2015, my total student loans were probably around $100,000. Now, my loan’s gotten up to $163,718.20. I haven’t been able to find opportunities that would equate to what this doctorate’s supposed to be about, in terms of finding a leadership position and the pay that usually would come along with it. For a while I was on an income-based repayment plan, so I made my payments pretty consistently. But my recent forbearance started in March of last year. I got married in April 2017, and all the way up until that point, I’d always filed single taxes. Before, my payment plan was like $200 a month. But then when we got married, they doubled it to over $400. I couldn’t do it.

I was already in forbearance before the pandemic, but I’ll save on some interest on my federal loans because interest has been suspended. I’m more concerned about my living situation. I finally got myself together to where I would’ve paid the minimum amount they wanted. But then I’m moving to a bigger place ’cause I’ve got a kid now. And then the kid costs money. So all that’s already eaten up. I have to try to figure out a new way by the time my forbearance ends in January.

Sometimes I think about what if I’d just toughed it out with the Ph.D. program. By now I would already be done, and I could have my own lab. But I didn’t like messing with mice. I wanted to work with people more because I understood myself as an introvert, and I wanted to force myself into a job where I would have to communicate more.

I had to take out a loan from my retirement in order to pay for our wedding. We weren’t planning on more children then. But as time was going on, of course we started to want that. At first we were able to find a nice place in Vegas that was a rental. It was$1,200 a month, or something like that, for a four-bedroom, three-bathroom house. Now I’m in D.C. paying $1,700 for a two-bedroom apartment, and it’s been killing me.

When I first moved to D.C., I had taken out all my retirement and I was going to use that to maybe find a house. But then when I started looking, they were like, “The amount of your student loans affects your ability to get something, so you’re going to have to co-sign.” I’m like, “Oh, of course I’ll co-sign with my wife.” 

So I get my wife to co-sign and then find out that she had bankruptcy that she didn’t tell me about. Clearly I love my wife. We’re together, right? But this was the one and only time she’s ever misled me. She didn’t lie or anything like that, but she just never mentioned it. She was afraid she could lose me with something like that. With my wife’s bankruptcy and my student loan amount, it’s been hard.

At the school where I work, a lot of students come from nice economic backgrounds, and sometimes they’ll talk about how they want to leave the school because of financial reasons. They talk about it like it’s a right for them to be here, like: “Why’s it so hard for me to be able to afford this place? I worked hard. My parents worked hard.” I’d be thinking, “Well, you didn’t have to come here. There are other schools that cost less.”

With all that said, I know I’m still in a better position than a big chunk of this country because of the education I received. Since this is the way the system is, if my stepdaughters and my son, want to go to school, and they want to go to a school they feel could help them get into a particular career, and they want to take a loan to do it, I would let them do it.

Frustration would be the No. 1 emotion I feel about my debt. I guess after 20 to 25 years [on income-based repayment], then it gets forgiven. But when it’s forgiven, it gets added to your gross income, and then you end up getting taxed on it. I think I’m never going to pay it off.