The United States of Debt

Afraid You’ll Be Paying Off Student Loans Forever?

You’re not the only one. Here’s how the high cost of student loans burdens everybody.

preview of USoD episode 3.


This article supplements the United States of Debt, our third Slate Academy. Please join Slate’s Helaine Olen as she explores the reality of owing money in America. To learn more and to enroll, visit

On average, college graduates still earn more money than people who don’t go to college. But not everyone has the ability to pay for college right off the bat—and that’s where student loans come in.

In this third episode of the United States of Debt, a Slate Academy, host Helaine Olen explores the depth of America’s student loan crisis. Today, Americans owe about $1.3 trillion in student loans. How does the impact of those student loans affect our economy? How many of us are really burdened by the cost of pursuing a higher education, and is there a way out? Are student loans more common now, and why? Why are student loans such a mess in the United States compared with other countries? And what do for-profit schools have to do with all of this?


Also, tune in to hear Helaine’s advice for moving past these mountains of student debt.

In this special free preview of the United States of Debt, Episode 3: The High Cost of Student Loans, you’ll hear Chapter 1: “You Aren’t Going Anywhere Without College.”

To get access to the rest of the episode, plus other supplemental articles and bonus segments, visit

Meet our subjects from Episode 3:

  • Rosette, 23, is from Long Island, New York. She has $120,000 in student loan debt from her undergraduate degree at Bard College and her master’s from Harvard University. She teaches eighth-grade English at an urban public school in Massachusetts.
  • Ami, 29, has about $30,000 in debt from attending the Illinois Institute of Art. Her mother, who is a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, also took out about $78,000 in loans for her education. Ami lives near Chicago with her boyfriend, 5-year-old daughter, and two dogs. Ami and her boyfriend have refrained from getting married for fear that his wages will be garnished.


Our guest experts on Episode 3 include Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University and leading scholar on financing college education, and Robert Lawless, a professor University of Illinois’ law school and an expert on debt.


Read the complete transcript of Episode 3 here.

Also, we’re hoping that you’ll share your stories of debt with us. How is your life impacted by student loans? Did you attend a for-profit college and have an experience like Ami’s? Do you find yourself avoiding phone calls from numbers you don’t recognize, fearing it might be debt collectors? Send us a voice memo at and we might run some of your responses in a bonus segment or upcoming episode. You can also dial (929) 279-3328 and leave a message for us there. Feel free to remain anonymous.

To join this Slate Academy and hear future episodes, chat in our private Facebook group, and read supplementary materials, visit

This episode included music by Kai Engel, Chris Zabriskie, and Sergey Cheremisinov.