Higher Education

The faces of student debt

Nearly 45 million people hold $1.7 trillion in education loans. Here are some of their stories.

There are parents who have traded in their financial security for their children’s dreams. Husbands who have dropped out of college to care for family. Professionals whose bid for parity at work has pushed retirement further out of reach. And young graduates who forgo health insurance to pay down their loans.

These are some of the stories of the nearly 45 million people who hold $1.7 trillion in education loans in the United States. For some, repayment of the debt is an inconvenience. For others, it’s a burden.

Public misconceptions about who has student loans and why simplifies what is a nuanced and complex discussion over debt relief. Among the fastest growing categories of student loan borrowers over the last two decades are Black students and people age 50 and over, according to the latest Federal Reserve data.

Between 2010 and 2015, the number of outstanding loans by borrowers 50 and older grew by 80 percent — more than 32 percentage points higher than the growth of borrowers below 50 years old, according to Federal Reserve data. The trend has continued in recent years, according to data from the Education Department.

Rapid rise in educational debt for those 50 and older

Average outstanding educational debt per borrower

Borrowers:

under 50 years old

50 years and over

$41,059

$33,090

$40k

$30k

$15,307

$13,910

$20k

$10k

0

2020

2004

2017

Sources: Federal Reserve Bank of New York Consumer Credit Panel/Equifax (2004-2016). U.S. Education Dept. (2017-2020)

MARIA AGUILAR/THE WASHINGTON POST

Rapid rise in educational debt for those 50 and older

Average outstanding educational debt per borrower

Borrowers:

under 50 years old

50 years and over

$41,059

$33,090

$40k

$30k

$15,307

$13,910

$20k

$10k

0

2020

2004

2017

Sources: Federal Reserve Bank of New York Consumer Credit Panel/Equifax (2004-2016). U.S. Education Dept. (2017-2020)

MARIA AGUILAR/THE WASHINGTON POST

Rapid rise in educational debt for those 50 and older

Average outstanding educational debt per borrower

Borrowers:

under 50 years old

50 years and over

$41,059

$33,090

$40k

$30k

$15,307

$20k

$13,910

$10k

0

2020

2004

2017

Sources: Federal Reserve Bank of New York Consumer Credit Panel/Equifax (2004-2016).

U.S. Education Dept. (2017-2020)

MARIA AGUILAR/THE WASHINGTON POST

In 2019, the Federal Reserve found that borrowing rates were higher in areas with a majority of Black residents. The agency noted the income disparities are likely driven by lower-income students who are more likely to need loans to pay for school.

In 2019 borrowing rates in Black-majority Zip codes were higher than rates in Hispanic majority and White-majority Zip codes

Average balance per borrower

Black-majority zips

Hispanic-majority zips

White-majority zips

$40k

$30k

$20k

$10k

0

Sep. 2019

Mar. 2004

Sources: New York Fed Consumer Credit Panel /

Equifax, Census Bureau.

MARIA AGUILAR/THE WASHINGTON POST

In 2019 borrowing rates in Black-majority Zip codes were higher than rates in Hispanic majority and White-majority Zip codes

Average balance per borrower

Black-majority zips

Hispanic-majority zips

White-majority zips

$40k

$30k

$20k

$10k

0

Sep. 2019

Mar. 2004

Sources: New York Fed Consumer Credit Panel / Equifax, Census Bureau.

MARIA AGUILAR/THE WASHINGTON POST

In 2019 borrowing rates in Black-majority Zip codes were higher than rates in Hispanic majority and White-majority Zip codes

Average balance per borrower

Black-majority zips

Hispanic-majority zips

White-majority zips

$40k

$30k

$20k

$10k

0

Sep. 2019

Mar. 2004

Sources: New York Fed Consumer Credit Panel / Equifax, Census Bureau.

MARIA AGUILAR/THE WASHINGTON POST

As the merits of student debt cancellation are debated, we talked to borrowers in these categories to show how debt affects people at various stages of their lives. Dozens shared their stories, but we narrowed the group down to a few who represent significant trends.

Emmanuel Dunagan sits on a bench near the Chicago River, a place he frequented as a student at the Illinois Institute of Art,, on March 13, 2021. (Youngrae Kim for The Washington Post)

Emmanuel Dunagan, 28

Bellwood, Ill. | Illustrator

$42,495.52

Higher education is and forever will be a sensitive subject for me.

Coming out of high school, I took the year off to work and figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I wanted to do something creative but didn’t know how to actualize that. Instead of going to a university, I enrolled in a community college — College of DuPage — and that is still to this day one of the best decisions I’ve made. It was affordable and gave me a chance to figure out my path.

When I finished in the winter of 2014, I transferred to the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago. It was more affordable than other nearby schools and, I guess, I was persuaded by the marketing. I remember watching commercials and they presented themselves as the institution to be at if you were creative. You know, they had audio-visual programs, design, culinary classes, so it was quite a wide range.

When I was studying illustration at the Art Institutes, I thought I was getting a decent education at first. Some of the material felt dated, and I wasn’t being challenged. I thought about leaving, but money was still an issue and I had built a community there with faculty and students.

In my last year, I was so excited about the community I created and what lay ahead. And then in one week it was all washed away. It was July 2018 and I had two courses left, when we learned our school had lost its accreditation. Come to find out, they knew since January and told us nothing. No other school would take all of my credits. The choices were start all over again or finish out a program for a worthless degree.

I stayed. Everybody around me was scrambling to figure out what they’re going to do. And it wasn’t just students. It was the faculty, too. I watched a faculty member, who gave 10 years of her life to that institution, box up her office, just stunned. There was more than enough grief to go around. I had built a relationship with these people. So I was hurting for myself, but I was also grieving over everybody else’s circumstances.

I knew I had these looming student loans, but I was still trying to make sense of what was happening. I still had to find a job. I still had to find a way to use my degree. I still had to pay my bills. I was so incredibly hurt and devastated because I did everything by the book, worked hard. Even though it is a piece of paper, it validates the journey. It validates the work.

But I refuse to let this situation define me. There was a point I was worried I wouldn’t get the job I have now because of what happened. Clearly, what matters to them was what I brought to the table during the interview process, my portfolio, my experience and my ideas. I’m grateful for that, but I still want accountability for what happened at the Art Institutes.

Stephanie and John Vanderslice, both professors of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas, at the campus on March 20, 2021. (Brandon Dill for The Washington Post)

Stephanie Vanderslice, 54

Conway, Ark. | Creative Writing Professor

$111,000

My husband and I have taken on the equivalent of a mortgage for our sons’ educations. We are paying off a $15,000 loan for our oldest son. We also have another $72,000 in loans for our younger son, who has three semesters left that will mean borrowing another $24,000. He’s borrowed another $20,000 on his own.

We would have been paying more for our oldest, but he got very homesick his first year at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. He came home and went to the public university where my husband and I teach, University of Central Arkansas.

We were very fortunate, in that case, because our university pays 80 percent of the cost for faculty children. After he graduated from our school, he lived with us for a year until he paid off the $2,500 loan he took out for RIT. He’s a very practical kid, probably why he’s a computer analyst.

My younger son, he’s a musician: a cellist. The University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music had a professor he really wanted to study with, and it’s a good school for his field. He’s passionate about music, and he’s really good.

We wanted the boys to go where they thought was the best match and would give them the best opportunities. We always would say, “If it’s about education, we want to make it possible.” Both of our parents were that way.

But it’s such a different time than when we went to college.

I graduated with $8,000 in student loans in the 1990s. It wasn’t hard to pay that off. When I continued to graduate school, I got scholarships and fellowships. I worked the first year as a secretary and paid off the debt. My husband’s debt from the University of Virginia was even smaller than mine. We’re lucky. We’re clear of our own college debt, so we could take on some for our children.

When the boys were growing up, we didn’t really have much to save. While they were young, we were paying for day care. And then, we were very slowly promoted through the university. We were honestly just getting by. And then, when we finally got to stick our heads above water, college was like, wham!

I went into the Parent Plus program thinking, “Oh, this is the government, it will be a cheaper alternative to private loans, right?” And then, I started seeing the origination fees and the high interest. But private loans make me nervous and I assumed the government would treat us better than a bank. The other thing is, we live in a 101-year-old house. We have some equity in it, but we need that in case anything breaks down.

The way I look at it is we’re prioritizing education. We have the money now to pay, but it’s been hard, you know. We are at a point in our lives where we’re established. We have a house. We have had our children. If we have to be frugal for 10 or 15 more years, we can do it. We’re going to be really pinching pennies, and it will take longer to retire. We don’t have much of an emergency fund, and we just have to be really careful.

Erin Corbett earned a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. (Courtesy of Erin Corbett)

Erin Corbett, 43

Bloomfield, Conn. | Educator

$330,360

I picked up the bulk of my debt from a doctorate program at the University of Pennsylvania. There was never any intention of pursuing that degree. I already had an MBA, but my boss at the time told me that if I wanted to keep my position as director of data management I needed to get a terminal degree.

I looked for programs that were the shortest, the most accelerated. All of those happened to be at elite universities that can afford to expand into these designer degrees. Whereas PhD programs typically include a financial commitment from the university, there is no support for executive doctorates. And that’s what I got.

It was a program for people who want to be college presidents or some senior level administrator. I was not one of those people. I had this job that I was good at, and I just wanted to keep it.

There is a lack of understanding about the path that women, particularly Black women, have to take to rise in their field, to at least touch the glass ceiling. My boss was a decent guy, but he was like, “You’re going to have to get this degree because of the optics.” That credential didn’t make me any better at my job.

The flip side is I wouldn’t have had access if I just had my bachelor’s degree, or even my MBA, because it is the weight of the Penn name that people respond to, especially when you are a Black woman. It is a very different conversation to walk into a room of policymakers and introduce yourself as Dr. Corbett, casually mentioning that you got your doctorate from Penn. People change their attitudes.

I’m usually in the room with mostly White men, who, if they have any postsecondary credential, it’s a bachelor’s; a handful have an advanced degrees. It says a lot to Black women about how we, after pushing and grinding and clawing and mortgaging our lives to get these degrees, are still forced to be in these room with people who haven’t had that struggle.

I’ve had people tell me when I go into prisons to teach that I’m wasting my degree. I’ve had positions where I’ve been paid very well, but I want to be an educator, help communities feel more empowered. I would not be happy doing something just for the money. I don’t have a job right now, so any income I bring in is from higher education consulting in prisons.

The first time it really hit me how much I owed was right before I graduated in 2017. There’s the exit interview where they were like, “Hello, welcome to all of the money that you owe. Here it is. Would you like to pay $5,000 a month?”

I placed the loans in forbearance. Income-based repayment is something I considered, but my income varies from year to year. It would be just a lot of paperwork to verify my earnings. And public service loan forgiveness was never really on the table because I always seem to land at organizations that don’t qualify.

The funny thing is I paid off the $12,000 I graduated with from undergrad, and the $30,000 for the MBA was manageable. But this debt? If I looked at it in-depth, it would depress me to no end, and it would just be a downward spiral because there is no way to dig out of it.

Trey Roberts graduated from William Peace University in Raleigh, N.C. (Courtesy of Trey Roberts)

Trey Roberts, 29

Raleigh, N.C. | Community Engagement Manager

$38,000

My academic journey was kind of long because of student loans. My family didn’t really think about how we were going to pay for school. We just knew that if you want a better life, you go to college. When I applied and got financial aid packages, the loans terrified me.

So I went to Nash Community College and started working at a movie theater. Then, I left school. I started thinking if I go farther, I might end up in debt that I won’t be able to repay. I figured I might as well just work. The place I’m from, Halifax County, is one of the poorest counties in North Carolina, and there’s a limit to what you can do there.

I remember getting a job offer at the post office, which paid $15 an hour. And I remember my family telling me: “Oh, my God, that’s a good-paying job.” And it was for where we lived. But I had bigger dreams. That’s when I returned to Nash. I completed and went onto William Peace University to study communications because it was close to home, small and a good fit.

I didn’t know anyone in Raleigh and needed a place to live. Room and board wasn’t covered by federal loans and scholarships, so I took out a private student loan. I was cautiously optimistic at that point. I was borrowing all of this money, but, you know, it’s going to be okay. I’m going to go out into the world and make enough to pay off all those student loans.

When I graduated, I was a server at a restaurant and making just enough to pay my half of the rent and feed myself. But I had to pay these student loans. I didn’t want to go into default. I didn’t want to mess up my credit. There were a lot of sacrifices. I didn’t have health insurance because I couldn’t afford the premium and my student loan payments.

Even now with a new job that pays more, I need a roommate and have to budget. I’m really nervous about what will happen when my income-based repayment starts up again. I got the new job at the start of the pandemic, when I didn’t have to make payments. Now that I make more, I will have to pay more. But the government doesn’t take into account my private student loan. With both loans, I was paying over $200. And I can’t afford to pay more.

A lot of my friends are talking about buying houses, and I can’t even imagine that. Saving has never really been possible. I’m just thankful I’m able to pay the bills and survive to the next check. I’ve been taking on freelance gigs here and there just to fill in some gaps. So I work twice as hard without being able to save.

I’m still thankful that I went to college. Only one of my parents got as far as finishing community college. You know, I borrowed because I didn’t come from money. It feels like education is a luxury. It shouldn’t be.

Larry Hennis dropped out of the William Mitchell College of Law to care for his dying wife. (Courtesy of Larry Hennis)

Larry Hennis, 64

Saint Peter, Minn. | Press Operator

$117,037

I owe $117,000 on a $60,000 loan after paying more than $53,000 over the past nine years.

I was accepted to William Mitchell College of Law in 2004. The plan was to get a JD and get a job at Westlaw or LexisNexis writing law texts. That same year, my wife was diagnosed with cancer. I became her caregiver, but we decided I should go ahead and enroll in law school. I did okay the first semester, but by the spring semester, her condition worsened.

There weren’t enough hours in the day, and I couldn’t keep up to remain in school. I flunked out with about $60,000 in loans from graduate school and one year of law school. If you’ve ever been around a chronically ill person, you know there are good days and bad ones. This became my life for eight years — there would be stretches where everything’s fine and then suddenly another setback.

Then there’s the expense. Even though I have insurance, there’s still a lot of things that aren’t covered. I filed for bankruptcy in 2009 because of the crushing medical bills. I put the loans in deferment and forbearance because I simply didn’t have the money to pay them. All the time the clock was ticking on the capitalized interest.

My wife died in 2012. I was so broke at that time I had to borrow money from my sister to pay for the funeral. A few months after her death, my loans went into default. Ultimately, 15 percent of my wages were garnished — about a third of what the payments would have been if I had tried to make them.

The federal government added penalties and fees which only add insult to injury. At some point it tends to become a meaningless number.

I have had enough stress in my life to last two lifetimes. I want to be able to retire. I’m approaching 65, and that’s a big unknown. I work in printing services at Minnesota State University and could qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. But that program is such a mess and I don’t want to be in my seventies or eighties waiting for relief.

I borrowed the money, but there is no way I should end up owing twice what I borrowed after essentially paying it off. I didn’t plan for my wife to get sick for eight years and then die, and I feel like I’m being punished for that. I’m in this position largely because of her illness and death.

Catherine McDermott-Coffin at her home in Bedford Hills, N.Y., on March 19, 2021. She earned a doctorate at Antioch University New England in New Hampshire. (Bryan Anselm for The Washington Post)

Catherine McDermott-Coffin, 73

Bedford Hills, N.Y. | Clinical Psychologist

$148,966

When I was in my early 50s, I wanted to change careers. I had been working in hospital administration for 25 years and was getting frustrated by everything being about the bottom line. So I decided I wanted to go back to school to become a clinical psychologist. Everyone in my family thought I was crazy. It’s a six-year process. And so I was like, “Well, I’ll be 58 when I’m out, but if I don’t do it, I’ll still be 58 in a frustrating job.”

I decided to go for it. I went to graduate school at Antioch University New England in New Hampshire. They had a program that allowed me to live at home and go there two days a week to complete my doctorate. That was a four-year program and then one year of internship and then one year of postdoc supervision before you can become licensed. I borrowed about $110,000. By the time I finished, I had accrued $36,000 in interest.

Right before I started my postdoc, I had an opportunity to consolidate those loans at an interest rate of 2.88 percent for a 30-year term. I jumped at that and started paying $620.21 a month. I became licensed in 2006; I got a job working at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, the only maximum security prison for women.

Somewhere around 2008, I learned about the loan forgiveness program for public service. But I found out that because my consolidated federal loan was owned by a commercial lender, it was ineligible. The only way I could have been eligible would be to convert those loans to the direct loan program. Well, you lose your interest rate and there is no guarantee of success in that program.

I did what I thought was best. It just frustrates me because I should have been eligible. What does it matter who holds my loan, when I borrowed the money from the federal government? I worked in a state prison for 12 ½ years, spent more time there than the forgiveness program even required. And you know, I have never missed a payment.

At this point, I borrowed $112,000, paid back about $120,000 and have another $103,000 to go. So I will have paid back double.

(Catherine’s total debt surpassed $148,000 by the time she graduated. Because she extended her payment over 30 years, as interest accrues she could end up paying double what she owed.)

I don’t regret going back to school. I’ve had a very rewarding second career. I ran a mental health unit providing a service. I helped create a space where incarcerated women could feel safe. I certainly could have made more money in private practice, but I feel like I had a tremendous impact on the lives of the women in that prison.

But here is this loan forgiveness program, and I fulfilled the requirements. I’m still able to pay as long as my husband and I continue to work. We would like to eventually retire. My husband is 77 and I’m going to be 74. That $621 a month would be significant in retirement.

This story has been updated to more fully explain McDermott-Coffin’s debt obligation.

Read more:

Congress makes student debt forgiveness tax-free, limits revenue that for-profit colleges get from enrolling veterans

Biden at odds with Democratic leaders over lawmakers’ call to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student debt

White House signals willingness to consider executive action on student debt cancellation

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