The Faces of Student Loan Debt


Those paying attention to America’s student-loan crisis might know the staggering statistics by heart: The total student debt burden now sits at more than $1.2 trillion, and the most recent grads left school $35,000 in the hole.

Of course, numbers don’t tell the whole story.

So we sought out eight borrowers from around the country—many of whom are shouldering burdens significantly above the average load—to tell us how their student debt affects them on a daily basis. These aren’t just recent grads: They range in age from 23 to 49, and owe from $14,000 to nearly a quarter-million dollars. Here are their stories.

Jayana Johnson

Age: 28
User experience designer
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Where did you go to school?

Long Island University and The Flatiron School in New York. I left LIU after my junior year in 2010 because my mom could no longer afford the tuition, which grew from $32,000 to $40,000. I didn’t have a high enough credit score to take out additional loans alone.

Where’d you go from there?

I wanted to pay down my loans and support myself, so I worked for a few years as an events coordinator and at a PR agency. When I received a small inheritance from my grandmother in 2013, I started looking into new schools.

That’s when I discovered The Flatiron School, which trains creative people in Web and mobile development, and its partner program, The NYC Tech Talent Pipeline. I won a full $1,200 scholarship to attend Flatiron in January 2014, and completed the program in six months.

Then I did an internship at MasterCard, which turned into a contract position that ended in February. Now I’m looking for positions as a user experience designer.

Are you currently making loan payments?

I am. The only time I deferred them was while I attended The Flatiron School.

My mom and I initially took out about $62,000 in private and federal loans, with interest rates ranging from 6 to 10 percent, but I’ve been paying them with income from my paychecks, as well as $8,000 of my inheritance. (I’m currently paying $1,000 a month.) My mom also paid about $15,000 over four years, so my current balance is $25,000.

If you had to do it again, would you take out student loans?

Yes. School wasn’t affordable any other way. I had scholarships and worked, yet still owed half of my tuition. But maybe I’d go to a community college for two years, then transfer to a four-year college to cut costs.

Any advice for current college students?

Live at the Bursar’s and guidance offices to learn how to get the most out of the financial aid package. Find out about scholarships, ways to earn accelerated degrees and nontraditional routes.

Jesse Cowell

Age: 43
Occupation: Freelance writer and director
New York, N.Y.

How did you rack up such a hefty student loan balance?

I got two degrees: one was from SUNY, the State University of New York in Albany, where I accumulated $17,000 in loans, and the other was from film school at the University of Southern California. I left USC in 1999, owing both private loans and $90,000 in public, government subsidized and unsubsidized loans.

While I focused on paying off the private loans (the balance is about $2,000 now), I couldn’t afford to pay the much larger public loans so I fell behind on payments, racking up fees and penalties.

Eventually, I consolidated the public loans—combining multiple federal education loans into one loan—in 2007.

I made a few payments over the years and tried to consistently repay this loan in 2010, but the income-sensitive payment of $1,800 was too expensive along with my other monthly expenses, so I have primarily deferred the loan.

As a result, the interest on the loan, which is 8 percent fixed, grows by about $10,000 a year and the current balance is $250,000. Once the private loans are paid in full, I will tackle the public loans.

Were you concerned about your ability to pay back your debt after school?

I’ve always been concerned about paying off the larger loan. It’s difficult to pay back a $90,000 loan, but not impossible if you can secure immediate, well-paid employment. But if you can’t attack it right away, the interest accrues, and the loans grow out of control.

Were you able to find a job in your field after graduation?

Everyone said I was going to be the next Spielberg, and I sent out 150 resumes on the best VHS tape I could buy. Nobody responded.

How did this impact your ability to repay the loans?

I ended up working in L.A. for three years at a dotcom and a production company, but didn’t earn enough to make the loan payments at the time—$700 to $800 a month. The student loan servicers harassed me endlessly.

Were you ever able to catch up?

The companies I worked for in L.A. closed, and I moved back to New York in 2002 to try my luck as a filmmaker. I found work at two startups, where I made enough to pay for the private loans—ultimately paying over $30,000 over the past 15 years. I focused on the loans I’d cosigned with family members because I don’t want others to be responsible for my debt.

Every loan I have is now in good standing, and I’m currently paying $1,600 a month. I’d like to save for the future, but when you owe this kind of money, there’s no such thing as savings or retirement income.

Why did you decide to make a comedy about your student loan experience?

My goal in making the film “I.O.U.” is to shed light on the student loan industry. It’s horrific, but I figure the best way to deal is to make people laugh and start the conversation.

There’s a lot of social responsibility in the film, too. I’m not one of these people who just blames. I played some part in this, so there is a moment where I have to take a look in the mirror and say, “Okay, I’m part of this—it’s not just The Man out to get me.”

But when you have 8 percent interest on a student [loan] in a country that prides itself on having an educated population, really what you’re doing is creating a workforce of people who owe.

Brandon Montgomery

Age: 23
Full-time college student
Hackensack, N.J.

Where do you go to school?

I’m a junior at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J. I transferred here after three semesters at Bergen Community College in Paramus, N.J.

Why did you decide to attend community college first?

I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, and didn’t want to pay 10 times the tuition at a four-year institution without first being sure.

Now I’m pursuing my degree in sports management, finishing up in spring 2017. I’d eventually like to go into the business side of sports as an athletic director, but I’m also interested in scouting, marketing and PR for high schools and colleges.

Do you currently have student debt?

I owe about $14,000, but it will be closer to $70,000 when I graduate. I just started taking out student loans last fall. (My financial aid package at Bergen Community College was enough to cover the full tuition.)

Owing such a large amount could have been prevented with scholarships. I didn’t apply for them initially because of my high school grades, but I am doing well now and looking into some.

Have you considered paying down your loans before graduation?

If I had extra money, I would. Now I work about 22 hours a week at a grocery store and an events company, which covers my basic living expenses.

But I did receive an $1,800 refund from my student loan servicer this year and put it straight into a savings account. That way, I’ll have some money on hand to pay back my loans later.

Once you’re working full-time, how long do you think it’ll take to pay off your debt?

If I get an entry-level job—say, as a sales person in the ticket office of a Division I collegiate athletic program, making $30,000—and live at home, it might take five years to pay everything off. Otherwise, it would probably take 10.

Any advice for current college students?

Try your best to secure as many grants, scholarships, funding and financial aid as possible because it makes life a lot easier.

Becky House

Age: 44
Financial education and communication director
Port Orchard, Wash.

You returned to get your bachelor’s degree at 36, after raising five kids. Why?

I went to college when I was much younger. But the timing was off because it was too much while raising little kids and working.

Even though I had a lot of experience in the financial education industry—I currently work at a credit counseling agency—when I looked at other opportunities, they all required bachelor’s or even master’s degrees. I felt like not completing college was holding me back.

After lots of stops and starts at several colleges over the years—and taking out about $24,000 of unnecessary loans in the process, thanks to signing up for too many courses along the way—I finally graduated in 2013 from Washington State University with a bachelor’s in social sciences.

Has securing a degree translated to more income and better job opportunities?

Before I earned my degree, I was making roughly what I am now—and at this point, I love what I do and am staying put. However, my degree has opened the door for me to look for other opportunities in the future.

Are you repaying your loans now?

They are in forbearance until June 2017, which means I’m not currently making payments on the loans. The minimum payment is $777—and sometimes it came down to the mortgage or student loan payment.

After the forbearance, I’ll make payments for the next 10 years, then the rest will be forgiven through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program [if I remain in my job] because I work for a 501(c)3 nonprofit agency.

Have you made other financial sacrifices because of your student loans?

It mostly centers around healthcare issues. I have a problem, but I don’t go to the doctor because I [worry] it’s going to result in thousands of dollars in medical bills. We have insurance, but there is always a remaining balance. Unless we’re bleeding or dying, we just don’t go.

How does your experience affect the way you prepare for your kids to go to college one day?

Two of my kids are already in college. One has her associate’s degree and is continuing on to a four-year college. The other has about one year under her belt. I encouraged them to attend, but I never thought it was my job to pay.

Instead, I explained how you can get at least an associate’s degree without loans—by working, maximizing their financial aid packages and applying for grants—and told them to avoid taking any classes you don’t need, which is essentially wasting money.

Nathan Hornes

Age: 26
Restaurant manager
Los Angeles, Calif.

What college did you attend?

I went to Everest College Ontario Metro, a for-profit school in California. After I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in April 2014, I had a hard time finding jobs in my field of study, which was business management.

What type of jobs were you looking for?

I wanted to go into marketing or advertising. As a singer/songwriter, I’m also interested in opening a camp for kids who are musically inclined.

I was told repeatedly throughout my college career: Whatever your heart desires, we can make it happen. Once you’re at Everest, you’re at Everest for life. I expected them to have a network of employers I could apply to after I graduated, as they advertised. Instead, I was sent job posts from Craigslist and

Every real job lead I found, I got on my own. I applied to hundreds of places with no luck and attended several jobs fairs on Everest’s campus.

You are a part of the Corinthian 200—the first students in U.S. history to declare a federal student debt strike in 2015. How did this begin?

In February 2015, we started organizing and fighting back through a group known as the Corinthian 15, but we’re now known as the Corinthian 200 and counting. We demanded to know where the network of employers, professional contacts and six-figure jobs were that the admissions, career services, teachers, staff and school president had promised.

Not only do we have Corinthian student strikers—people who attended Everest College, Heald College or WyoTech College—but students from other for-profit colleges, like University of Phoenix and The Art Institute, are striking in solidarity. To leverage our collective power, we started an organization called The Debt Collective to offer debtors a shared platform for advocacy and action.

Have you repaid any of your nearly $70,000 student debt?

No, I’m on strike for a reason. The school was being investigated for fraud for years before I attended. Why wouldn’t the Department of Education require the school to expose this? If they did, I wouldn’t have enrolled.

Where do things stand with your student loans now?

From October 2014 to March 2015, all our loans were placed on administrative forbearance because Corinthian Colleges went into bankruptcy, and the DOE wanted to see if they could prove the school was fraudulently misrepresenting job placement rates, advertising programs it didn’t offer and subjecting students to unlawful debt collection practices.

Unfortunately, not much has changed over the past year. We haven’t received a notice on whether the DOE will issue a total discharge of student loan debt for Corinthian Colleges students, but that’s our goal.

What impact do you think this strike will have on future student loans legislation?

We’re trying to get debt-free education for all students—whether it’s for-profit or private—and the cancellation of all student loan debt.

Monique Prince

Age: 49
Clinical social worker
Chester, N.H.

What prompted you to return to college at 41?

I’d been a stay-at-home mom to three young children for 10 years when my husband unexpectedly filed for divorce in 2006.

My undergraduate degree was in theology, and I knew I needed another degree to support myself. So I went to the University of New Hampshire in Durham to get my master’s degree in social work, which initially cost $60,000, but has accrued to $75,000 with interest. Now I’m a clinical social worker, working with those who have dealt with abuse and trauma.

How has the combination of divorce and student loans affected your finances?

I lost everything in the divorce. Everything was considered jointly owned. After it was split and I paid my attorney’s fees and other debts, I was left with my car, furniture and clothes.

Paying my loans has been a struggle. I’m paying an income-based amount of $293; otherwise, it’d be more than $700. Still, I don’t have any extras like cable or an expensive cell phone. My sole investment is my 401(k), which has $5,200 in it.

Do you have a long-term plan to be debt-free?

I’m trying to find work at a clinic with The National Health Services Corps, which is a government-sponsored program offering certain mental health clinicians $60,000 to repay student loans in exchange for two years of service in communities that need them.

Have you ever asked your provider to amend the loans?

No, they are federal loans. It’s very difficult to even pay down the principal on them, as you can with a mortgage or car loan. If you make any extra payments on a student loan, it goes first to [outstanding] interest, not the principal.

What advice do you give your children about attending and paying for college?

I have raised my children with the understanding that college is a part of their lives. They will all attend. They know they have 529 accounts to help defer costs, but I will encourage them to gets jobs as soon as they can to help earn the money needed to pay for it.

Kelli Prather

Age: 43
Occupational therapist
Cincinnati, Ohio

What are you doing for a living?

I’m an occupational therapist and a doctoral student at the University of Indianapolis, studying health science with an emphasis in occupational therapy. I also own a home-health agency in Ohio and a professional Occupational Therapy Association in New York City.

You currently owe $110,000 in student debt. How’d you accumulate so much?

It’s actually from a total of five college degrees. I went to school because I wanted to pursue occupational therapy, but I was on a waiting list to begin my major at my junior college—so I completed other degrees during that period.

Are you currently repaying your loans?

I’m in the process of requesting a deferment. I’ve paid my loans over the past 10 or 11 years, but it’s essentially just gone toward the interest—even at an average of $489 a month. The principal balance is still $110,000, and that’s disheartening.

I’m hoping to obtain a new business contract to increase my company’s cash-flow, which should put me in a better position to repay the loans faster over time.

How long do you think it will take you to pay everything off?

Unless the U.S. implements a student loan forgiveness program [that I qualify for], or the amount owed is somehow lowered, I could be paying for the rest of my life.

Was it worth it?

Ultimately, yes, because these loans gave me an opportunity to go to school and follow a career that’s extremely rewarding.

Do you have any advice for current college students?

Don’t rely solely on financial aid or student loans to pay for school. Think about volunteering for charitable organizations that pay for a certain amount of college costs in return for service. And consider working in fields—such as health care, nonprofit, education, legal, as well as for the federal, state or local government—where your employer may reimburse your student loans or they are forgiven up to a certain amount through programs, like the Teacher Loan Forgiveness program. Always have plans A and B so you can make your own opportunities.

Ryan Rogers

Age: 29
Occupation: Chiropractor
Where: Ventura, Calif.
Owes: $210,000

What made you decide to become a chiropractor?
Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to be either a doctor or dentist. But in high school, I watched as my future mother-in-law underwent two spinal surgeries, yet still suffered a lot of pain. She finally felt better after she explored alternative types of medicine like massage, acupuncture and chiropractics—so I went into the chiropractic field, knowing I could help people.

You currently have $210,000 in student loans. Is that from both your bachelor’s and doctorate degrees?
No. Those loans are only from my doctorate, which I received from Southern California University. I originally took out $202,000—with an interest rate of 6.67 percent—and it’s grown to $210,000. Thankfully, I didn’t need loans for undergrad because my grandmother saved enough for each grandchild to cover tuition and living expenses.

Your wife is a Certified Financial Planner. How has that affected your debt-repayment strategy?
She’s been a significant help! We’ve considered a lot of different ways to wipe out the debt faster—including making more than the minimum payment when possible, seeking out teaching opportunities in order to qualify for forgiveness programs after 10 years and looking at how our tax filing status affects my payments.

Currently, we earn $150,000 a year and my income-based payment is $1,200. But as my salary increases, I plan to pay up to $2,000 a month toward the debt so that I can start paying down the principal, rather than just interest.

Have you ever deferred your loans?
Yes, and that delayed our repayment plan. The first year after I graduated from chiropractic school, I paid just $400 a month, which didn’t cover interest, and the loan balance grew. Then I got a job as an associate in someone else’s practice, and began paying $1,200. But when I opened my own practice in February 2015, I deferred for four or five months in order to get my business off the ground.

Would you say your student loans have significantly affected your life?
It’s difficult to know that you’re making monthly payments, but the balance remains the same. But as I get further along in my practice, my income will increase, and it’ll give us the flexibility to pay a little bit more each month.

Fortunately, my wife doesn’t have any student loans, thanks to receiving a lot of scholarships and Pell Grants. Probably the biggest sacrifice we’ve had to make is not building up a very large emergency fund—though we add $500 to it each month—and we also each save for retirement. She invests in a 401(k) at work and I have a Roth IRA.

What advice would you give to other students?
Know the value of the education versus the costs. I got a great education, and it was worth the money because my earning potential is high. If you’re going into an industry with very few job opportunities and high education costs, be mindful—or else, you’ll always be playing catchup.