They borrowed money to pay for college. Here’s what they would change about student loans.


Earlier this year, we asked readers to share with us their student loan stories. Nearly 400 of you responded. Some expressed regrets. Others frustration. Most hoped for a wholesale makeover of a federal lending system they called unnecessarily complex and unforgiving.

The faces of student debt

The Biden administration said Wednesday it was extending until May a freeze on student loan payments imposed during the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, officials also are embarking on changes to loan repayment plans, debt forgiveness and interest capitalization.

The need for those changes is underscored in what we heard from readers. Their answers to one question in particular — “If you could change something about your loan experience, what would it be?” — provides insight into some of the pitfalls of the existing lending system.

Michele Costa-Bell

Program manager, 41, Boston

“As a first-generation Latina, if I didn’t take loans out, I wouldn’t have been able to go to college. With good grades, I managed to go to community college virtually for free while working 20 hours a week to support myself. To finish school with a BA, I had to transfer and choose a public college since it was ‘cheaper’ at 15k in 2000 compared to the tuition at a private university that included a scholarship.

Perhaps, the one thing I would change would be choosing to not get a master’s degree even though I feel that it’s been fundamental in my career trajectory. I did work full time while getting my master’s degree and used tuition reimbursement from work (yet still graduated with about $45,000 in debt).

The other things I would change, I have no control over. College should be affordable without taking on massive amounts of debt. Student loans should have a zero percent interest rate.

Due to interest, I’ve paid over $34,000 over the past 14 years. My original balance was $60,000 in 2007 and in 2021, it is $59,000. If my loans had no interest rate, I would at least be halfway to paying my loans off. I find it unbelievable that the government and private companies are making so much money from people seeking to make their lives better and contribute to society.”

Joe Doll

Teacher, 34, St. Paul, Minn.

“The process for student loan forgiveness needs to be simplified. When I set out for a career as a teacher, I did not assume there would be so many strings attached to the forgiveness program. Had I known that 99 percent of applicants are denied forgiveness, I would likely have considered a more lucrative career path.

The interest rate — it should not be cheaper to borrow money from a bank for a car loan than to borrow money from the government to get an education.”

Joey Perez

Attorney, 65, Virginia Beach

“I would have put the loans in our daughters’ names and paid them directly. They would have a better chance at forbearance, forgiveness and income adjustment. Also, one of the daughter’s loans would be done because she is a public school teacher. I also wish I had put money in the state 529 fund [a savings plan to help pay for education].”

Aline Lopes

Creative project manager, 38, Jacksonville, Fla.

“I would have paid more aggressively since the beginning. I used loan deferments and income-based payments for too long not understanding the interest would accrue absurdly. I sure had much lower income in years past, but I wonder if I could have simply just tightened things even more back then. I feel like I was swimming in interest for the longest time. And like I said prior, I’d likely not have gone to such an expensive school.”

Glendon Chamberlin

Elementary schoolteacher, 59, Great Barrington, Mass.

“The way interest is calculated. Even at a low rate, the amount of money I’ll pay in interest over the life of the loan will be three times the amount I borrowed. Why isn’t paying back the principal plus a little more enough?”

Noelle Tiongson

Pediatric neurologist, 38, Los Angeles

“I would have liked more warning about the high government interest rates and the consequences of taking out the full amount offered for every year that I was in med school. I could have taken out less in order to have less accruing interest. I am still dealing with this.”

Trevor Turner

Account executive, 28, Breckenridge, Colo.

“It’s not realistic to think I’d be where I am today without my education, and the additional year in my master’s program was the most rewarding experience of my academic career. But the monetary benefits have not been worth it. I wish there was more transparency upfront on the total costs and repayment details.

“You have no idea what $1,500 a month means until you’re paying for it yourself. There also needs to be a stronger correlation between salary and repayment, not only for federal but both private and federal combined. I was paying 46 percent of my take-home pay to student loans when I graduated but made too much to qualify for any repayment programs. The private loans are predatory and there’s no way out of this grip.”

Kale Driemeier

Transportation planner, 47, Austin

“I would have someone at the servicer assigned to my case so that I could have regular interaction with the same person about outstanding issues. As is, I have to call and there is a lot of variance in how well the reps are able to help me during the call.”

Millicent Usoro

Attorney, 28, Los Angeles

“I’m not sure I would have chosen a 25-year repayment plan after which the loan is forgiven, knowing that I will be taxed on the forgiven loan amount. I’m going to have to aggressively pay down my debt over the next 25-ish years to pay some of that balance down so I’m not taxed an enormous amount when it is forgiven.”

About this story

Story editing by April Bethea. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Design by J.C. Reed.