It’s a simple question that has a complicated answer.
“Repayment of this debt can be challenging,” the Fed said. “In 2018, 2 in 10 of those who still owe money are behind on their payments — little changed from the prior year. Individuals who did not complete their degree or who attended a for-profit institution are more likely to struggle with repayment than those who completed a degree from a public or private not-for-profit institution, even including those who took on a relatively large amount of debt.”
People are financing college mostly through student loans. But 24 percent have borrowed with credit cards and 7 percent with a home equity line of credit, according to the Fed.
Some critics argue that there isn’t a student loan crisis, pointing to the average amount of debt borrowers are carrying. The typical amount of education debt in 2018 was $20,000 to $24,999, the Fed said.
But “typical” doesn’t tell the full story.
The nonprofit group StudentDebtCrisis.org encourages borrowers to share their debt crisis stories. Here are some of their testimonies.
Nicole from Houston: “Struggling mother trying to pay loan $32,000. I don’t even have a degree. … I want to go back to school and do more for us but I just can’t with this debt hanging over my head. It saddens me to know you have to be in all the debt to better your life.”
(Many people can’t afford their loan payments. As a result, they place their loans in forbearance or get a deferral. Before they know it, their loans have ballooned.)
Mark from Los Angeles: “It’s crushing me and my family. I am 57 yrs. old and constantly putting it in forbearance. I fear it will follow me into retirement.”
Stephanie from Illinois: “I’m a social worker and most social work jobs are low paying. I understand that I chose this but in order to be considered for a $30,000 job in my state you need a Master Of Social Work degree. I work more than 40 hours per week and I have $151,000 in debt, mostly it’s all interest because of my payment plan. I have a family and I fear I will never pay this back. It’s like having a second mortgage.”
Emily from Detroit: “I wanted to go to school to help people, and my master’s degree allows me to do that every day. But with over $75,000 in debt, partially due to ever-accruing interest, it feels like I’ll never get ahead and will struggle with this my entire life.”
Then there are the borrowers who can’t keep up with their loans.
“Among those with outstanding student loans from their own education, 2 in 10 adults are behind on their payments,” the Fed said. “Those who did not complete their degree are the most likely to be behind.”
I was a guest recently on NPR’s “1A” show and the topic was “The Staggering Weight of Student Loan Debt.”
You can listen here.
During the broadcast, a listener with the Twitter handle @TheLouRichards asked several important questions.
He wrote: “Whose fault is it? Are the loans too easy to obtain? Is the interest rate too high? Do students and families not understand that the money is a debt that needs to be repaid? Is the cost of college too high?”
The House Financial Services Committee held a hearing Tuesday in an effort to explore the very questions this Twitter user raised.
Some fault the federal government for making education loans too easy to obtain. Others criticize colleges for letting costs get out of control. Or, pointing fingers at borrowers, some argue that they irresponsibly took on too much education debt and now must suffer the consequences.
“Despite the social media screeds, the student debt crisis did not happen because 44 million Americans all lacked personal responsibility,” Seth Frotman, executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center, wrote in submitted testimony to the House committee. “Like kerosene on a fire, student debt is driving the systemic economic and racial inequality that is tearing our communities apart and tearing our country apart.”
Comedian Hasan Minhaj, host of the Netflix show “Patriot Act,” also testified during the hearing. He told lawmakers that during a taping of his show on the student loan crisis, he polled the studio audience. Collectively, the 200 audience members had more than $6 million in student loans.
“This issue is sidelining millions of Americans,” Minhaj testified. “People are putting off marriage, kids, homeownership and retirement, especially my generation. I’m 33, and growing up it was drilled into our heads, ‘You’ve got to go to college if you want a middle-class job.’ ”
Although Minhaj didn’t graduate from college with debt, thanks to his immigrant parents, he said he’s still an advocate for consumer protection for student loan borrowers.
“You often hear the idea that these kids wouldn’t be in trouble if they just took some responsibility,” he said. “But they are trying to be responsible. They’re investing in an education. … Americans should not have to go bankrupt pursuing an higher education.”
You can watch his testimony, which is peppered with humor and passion, by clicking the link for the following tweet.
For more on the cause of the student loan crisis read:
While we wait and debate who’s at fault for this crisis, millions of borrowers are struggling to pay off their student loans. I wanted to share more of their stories. The following comments were posted by NPR “1A” listeners.
— “Wait a minute, did anyone force these students to sign on the dotted line? When you borrow money you have a responsibility to pay it back regardless of where the funds are going. Why did the students borrow so much and why didn’t they go to their local community colleges?”
— “My students and I are both broke and in debt — who’s profiting?”
From the “1A” Facebook page:
— “I’m ok paying the student loans I borrowed for my Pa. school education. How about a break from the high interest rates? Before I had my Master’s degree it had accumulated an extra 10k of interest to add to the debt! I’d love to work in rural or underserved areas, but my friends who did that were told the funds to pay off their loans had run out. If you wonder why doctors and other practitioners gravitate toward specialty practice in urban communities, it may be because we have crushing school debt.”
— “Live at home, start at community college, maybe then transfer to 4 year college it will save lots of money. Many students get into debt from spending loan money on far more than tuition. All the jobs I have got were only from connections I made in college not my degree wonder where I would be if I spent that time learning a trade.”
— One poster responding to the recommendation of going to community college: “It’s a great idea and I wholly support community college. BUT it still doesn’t address the obscene cost of higher education. Especially for those who pursue graduate level degrees. It also doesn’t factor in access to community colleges, as not every place in the U.S. has a community college within a reasonable distance. Our education system also doesn’t educate teenagers about loans and how to pick the best one for them. So we are expecting 17-18yr olds to make serious financial decisions.”
— “I owed 50k for college and a master's. What I resent is that I've already paid that back and then some. To borrow 50k I end up paying 250k. And I'll be paying for my college when my son starts his education. THAT'S the actual issue. The repayment process and interest rates.”
— “I owe more than I did when I graduated. I’ve faithfully paid income-based payments on time the entire time. Interest rates are making it impossible to make a dent in what I owe.”
— “I’m a tenure track college professor whose income based repayments are almost $700/month. It is almost exactly the same as my mortgage payment and only $200 of the payment goes to principle, the other $500 goes to interest. That is absolutely insane. I'm also one of the fortunate ones who have a good job. I also started out at a CC and went to state school while living at home with my parents for the entirety of undergrad and worked 25-30 hours a week. That was barely manageable in 2002 let alone for the students I teach now. Something has to be done about interest rates. Stop blaming students for taking on debt when we have systems that abuse students’ dreams.”
— “The government needs to get out of the business of subsidizing loans. Colleges take advantage of those guaranteed payments and raise tuition. Secondly, who signed on the dotted line?”
— “One of my kids will have especially large loans to pay back, after attending NYU, which never came up with enough aid. I really worry about how it will impact his ability to save for retirement or a house.”
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