Illustrations of people with student debt.
Illustrations by Olivia Fields

Debt Nation

The faces and lives behind America’s student loan crisis.

I hadn’t realized that college was optional until my best friend told me our junior year of high school that she wasn’t taking the SAT. As a child, I’d spent nights and weekends with my mom in the library as she finished her Ph.D., and I saw the material differences it made in our lives when she got that degree. I spent the summer before high school traversing the state of Texas for my older brother’s campus visits. The question in my household wasn’t if I was going to college; it was where and how we would pay for it. It wasn’t until this moment in my junior year that I recognized how rare that certainty was.

By then, my mom was a college professor, and she knew it was a foregone conclusion that I’d need student loans, particularly when I renounced my medical school dreams and decided to study journalism. Despite her STEM background, my mom never told me to consider something more practical. Instead, she asked me to consider what I would be able to comfortably pay back once those loans came due and that question—of how I would repay my student loans—played on loop in the back of my head as I went through college and began my career.

According to the nonprofit organization Student Debt Crisis, our collective student debt as a nation is currently at $1,740,184,278,148. Education, the theoretical equalizer, has turned into yet another way that deep inequality remains entrenched in our country—as well as a partisan flashpoint. After Bernie Sanders dropped out of the presidential race, Joe Biden announced a proposal for expanded student loan forgiveness in a bid to reel in Sanders supporters. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump vetoed a major student loan forgiveness bill in May, dealing a blow to students who seek debt cancellation because they say colleges defrauded them. As we head into an election amid a massive economic downturn in a global pandemic, the stakes of this debate have never been higher.

What once seemed like a straightforward launch pad—a college degree—has instead tied a weight to the ankles of millions of graduates. The average student debt in 2018 was between $20,000 and $24,999. And Black college graduates are five times as likely to default on their loans than their white peers. Lower-income students are taking out loans above $50,000 in numbers previously unseen. In some cases, their parents are becoming co-signers, turning student loan debt into a multigenerational albatross. The middle class, squeezed between the wealthy who can pay out of pocket and the families who qualify for greater financial aid, end up with more student loan debt on average than their peers from both higher and lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

The story of our national student debt crisis is one frequently told in numbers. It’s averages, it’s years, it’s interest rates and lost earning potential and percentage of defaults. The faces and lives behind those numbers recede to the background as politicians argue over how much debt should be forgiven, and when. So I set out to talk to a range of people about how exactly student debt has shaped their lives, from graduation until now. When we put out a call for stories about life with student loans, we received nearly 700 emails in response. For weeks, my inbox was flooded with the illuminating and often devastating details of what Sen. Elizabeth Warren has termed “our country’s experiment with debt-financed education.”

From those 700 emails, eight stories are featured below. What I learned in my hours of interviews is the weight of these numbers in people’s everyday lives. The shame so many feel when they look at the balance on their loans, the pride they take in their education, the dreams and life milestones deferred. More often than not, the people who felt most impeded by student loan debt were the ones who not only went without monetary support from family but also had parents who’d never navigated the American college system themselves. And that is perhaps the cruelest side effect of our great debt experiment. It doesn’t just punish those without means. It punishes those who want an education and don’t understand the cost until it’s too late.

Some of the people featured here are decades into their careers; others are recent graduates, just starting down their professional paths. Some spoke about delaying parenthood because of the burden of their debt. One has kids who are already juggling their own student loans. Some have finally paid off every penny; some still have hundreds of thousands of dollars to go. I began talking to them long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and they are all lucky to still have work. But one strange paradox is that in several cases the pandemic is actually temporarily helping them, since the coronavirus relief act has paused federal student loan payments until the end of September. It’s a move that, necessary as it was, also seemed to expose the arbitrariness of the rules and timelines of federal loan repayment in the first place.

I keep thinking about the conversations I had with my own parents eight years ago. I think about how their unshakeable belief in the value of education meant assuming loans they will most likely die without having fully repaid. And how those loans still didn’t give them a life where they could send their children to school debt-free.

Arthur Stallworth

Age: 36
Location: Silver Spring, Maryland
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

Arthur Stallworth, a black man with short locs and glasses
Olivia Fields

“I know I have to get a place that’s bigger and I’m already living paycheck to paycheck.”

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, our new baby, and my wife has twins. They’re 13. We’re in a two-bedroom apartment, and these girls need their space. 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.
Read Arthur Stallworth on quitting a Ph.D. program, moving away from Nebraska, and learning his wife had debt she’d never mentioned.

Jack Connolly

Age: 60
Location: Coal Township, Pennsylvania
Education: Bachelor’s in psychology and English, master’s in education for reading instruction
Current job: High school English teacher
Household income: $30,000
Relationship status: Single (divorced) with a 35 year-old son and a 28 year-old daughter
Peak student debt: $233,921
Current student debt: $233,921

A white man in his 60s with a beard and glasses
Olivia Fields

“There’s no way I could afford dating. Just dinner and a movie, that’ll run you 100 bucks.”

I live with my son. I’m grateful that he lets me live with him. He has student loans; my daughter has student loans. My kids understand my situation and I understand theirs. My debt hasn’t really affected my relationship with them, but in terms of my social or romantic relationships, oh, dear God. There’s no way I could afford dating. Just dinner and a movie, that’ll run you 100 bucks. I can’t pay that kind of money, you know? And part of it also is I’m 60 years old. I know I am well past my sell-by date. I’m not what women are looking for, especially because I’m a teacher. I’ll be honest, I’m making $30,000, and that’s $10,000 a year less than what I was making 12 years ago. It’s not exactly where I thought I would be at age 60, you know?
Read Jack Connolly on getting fired during the Great Recession, taking on parental loans alongside his own debt, and cashing out his retirement account.

Mimi Nakamura

Age: 29
Location: Brooklyn, New York
Education: Bachelor’s in psychology; master’s in mental health counseling, licensed in the state of New York as a mental health counselor; now getting a Ph.D. in counseling psychology
Current job: Mental health counselor
Household income: $22,500
Relationship status: Engaged
Peak student debt: $286,331
Current student debt: $286,331

Mimi Nakamura, who is Japanese-Malaysian-American, in a ponytail and glasses
Olivia Fields

“I don’t ever talk about it because I’m so worried.”

There’s a never-ending cycle in psychology of working for free. You have to do 600 hours of field experience, which is just working at clinic or hospital, or somewhere providing mental health counseling services. But you pay for it because it’s a class. And you’re not becoming a doctor. You’re becoming a mental health counselor. It’s just really exhausting and emotionally draining. For my Ph.D., the clinical component was at Bellevue Hospital, but because of the coronavirus, Bellevue removed all their psychology externs. That’s a big problem for the students in my field because not getting those hours means that on paper, we’re not ready to apply for jobs. I feel so much shame and so much financial burden because of this skeleton in my closet. But I don’t ever talk about it because I’m so worried—I don’t want people to think my family didn’t care about me or that I had no financial responsibility or knowhow. How can you expect someone to show up and be their best counseling self when you have all this financial stress?
Read Mimi Nakamura on her parents’ immigration to the U.S., getting tearful in her school’s financial aid office, and canceling her wedding.

Rachel Johnson

Age: 33
Location: Sacramento, California
Education: Bachelor’s in public health, master’s of public policy
Current job: Works on program support for state prisons
Household income: $270,000
Relationship status: Married, expecting a child
Peak student debt: $53,000 in 2013
Current student debt: $0, last payment was May 2017

A white woman with long dark hair
Olivia Fields

“I feel very grateful for my parents’ help but also guilty for how much opportunity I got.”

I am student loan debt free. My parents paid for my undergrad education. My mom is in management in the social work field, and my dad works for a trucking company in sales. We were not super wealthy growing up. My parents got a bit of a late start. They met in the Army in training and served together. Then they went to school on the GI Bill. It took them awhile to build their professional careers. They didn’t have a ton of savings, so they just paid out of pocket for my education. But because education had been such a help for them, it was really important to them to get me and my two sisters started. The deal was everyone gets undergrad paid for, and then grad school you figure out on your own. Now my husband and I are both high-income earners. I have about 70 staffers who work for me, and a lot of them are very close in age to me. All our jobs require college educations, so they all have at least a bachelor’s degree, and many have lots of debt. I just feel very grateful for my parents’ help but also guilty for how much opportunity I got and how much advantage I’ve had.
Read Rachel Johnson on the down payment money she also got from her parents, being pregnant in a pandemic, and her plans to pay for her kids’ education.

Jorge Acevedo

Age: 36
Location: Miami
Education:  Bachelor’s in political science, J.D.
Current job: Immigration attorney
Household income: $240,000
Relationship status: Married, no kids
Peak student debt: $240,000 in 2015
Current student debt: $0, last payment was November 2019

Jorge Acevedo, a Latino man in his 30s
Olivia Fields

“I almost cried when I saw the payment I was expected to make for the first time.”

In my first job I was making $42,000 a year, and I had $180,000 worth of student loans. I almost cried when I saw the payment I was expected to make for the first time. It really stunted both my social growth and just personal growth. I didn’t start making decent money until six years into practicing law. The first job I got where I began making significant money was the job I’m in now, at a big labor and employment law firm, where I started at $120,000. It was life-changing. I’ll tell you what, the first year I did not get serious about paying my student loans because it was the first time I felt my head was above water financially. I bought a townhouse. I ended up selling it two years later to jump-start my student loan repayment. I took all that equity from the house, and it was literally in my bank account for two days before it went straight to Sallie Mae. I moved back in with my mom.
Read Jorge Acevedo on how his debt has affected his dating life, the financial advice guru who helped him dig out, and the relief of making his last payment.

Naima Iqbal

Age: 24
Location: Washington, D.C.
Education: Bachelor’s in journalism
Current job: Video producer
Household income: $125,000
Relationship status: Married
Peak student debt: $22,000 in 2017
Current student debt: $18,106

A Pakistani-American woman in her 20s
Olivia Fields

“Inevitably the immigrant experience disadvantages you when it comes to understanding the logistics and the red tape.”

My parents emigrated from Pakistan in 2000. I was 4 years old when I got here, and my sister was 8. She ultimately got an amazing score on her ACT, but since she didn’t know anything about the college process, she thought it was a bad score and applied for scholarships with her SAT score, and didn’t get to take advantage of the federal assistance that was available. Inevitably the immigrant experience kind of disadvantages you when it comes to understanding the logistics and the red tape. When I saw the experience she had, I was like, OK, I can’t let this affect me too. I have to educate myself on how I can take advantage of the American college system. In college, I was surrounded by a lot of higher income families. Those people didn’t really have any relationship with student loans. It was kind of trippy because there’d be people not thinking twice about their expenses, just spending freely and traveling. Read Naima Iqbal on navigating the maze of online loan payments, getting offered an unpaid internship, and her celebration plans for when her debt is gone.

Sarah Babcock

Age: 41
Location: Atlanta
Education: Bachelor’s in international relations and Russian studies, J.D.
Current job: Deputy director of a nonprofit
Household income: $110,000
Relationship status: Married with two children, ages 5 and 8
Peak student debt: $57,000 in 2007; also still paying off her husband’s, which peaked at $120,000 in 2009
Current student debt: $31,000; husband’s is $83,000

A white woman in her 40s
Oliva Fields

“The thing that gives me the most heartburn is that it’s unlikely that we will be able to give our children the gifts our parents gave us: a debt-free undergrad.”

The joke I tell people is: “Just be careful who you marry because you might fall in love with somebody who has a Ph.D. in creative writing and a six-figure student loan.” My husband and I were both in grad school when we met, and we just did not talk about our student debt. We were stupid and didn’t think about it. We talked about the fact that we had it, but we both sort of accepted it as a necessary evil. I don’t think that we understood how much it would constrain our lives, particularly once we had children. Our student loan payments right now are money that’s not going toward retirement. Or saving for a down payment on a house. The thing that gives me the most heartburn is that it’s really unlikely that we will be able to give our children the gifts our parents gave us, which is a debt-free undergrad.
Read Sarah Babcock on big law vs. nonprofit salaries, surprise expenses during the pandemic, and what she’d tell her kids if they wanted to take out loans.

Bob Schneider

Age: 39
Location: Denver
Education: Bachelor’s in political science, master’s in public administration
Current job: Colorado government employee
Household income: $130,000
Relationship status: Married with one daughter, age 9
Peak student debt: About $50,000 in 2006
Current student debt: $22,900

A 39 year old white man
Oliva Fields

“My loans have been put on hold for now. It’s like the government just snapped their fingers and made six months of debt payments go away.”

I’ve worked for state government since 2006. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which forgives a portion of student debt for public service workers, is pretty much a disaster. I could find literally no information on the program for the five years after it was enacted in 2007. But due to the pandemic, my loans have been put on hold for now. It’s kind of funny though that they did it so quickly and easily. It just shows how arbitrary federally subsidized student debt is as far as the rules and repayments and all that. It’s like they just kind of snapped their fingers and made six months of debt payments go away. My daughter’s in fourth grade now, so she’s 9. So she has a little bit under 10 years for the federal government to get their shit together. But I’m not really holding my breath.
Read Bob Schneider on joining the Peace Corps, the stresses of an income-based repayment plan, and his wife’s job loss.