The experiences of a handful of Colorado students with student loan debt gives insight into what the larger student population faces in order to earn their degree.
A couple. A woman in her 60’s. A student who began accruing interest when he was 18. A single mother whose loans lasted into her 40’s. A father of four paying off his graduate school loans while planning for school for his kids. These are the faces of debt.
We have stories from seven Front Range residents who have lived with the stress of debt. While it wasn’t something they initially enjoyed discussing, once they started talking, the details kept coming. By the end of the conversation they seemed relieved to unburden themselves, and hoped their stories could help others realize they weren’t alone.
Collectively, the stories show a fuller picture of the considerations that students make when they go into debt, the experience of repayment, and the ultimate price many pay for their degree.
Alicia M. – 43
To Alicia, taking out school loans was an investment. She always expected to attend a state school because that’s what would be affordable to her, even with some help from her parents.
To pay for school, she borrowed about $22,000 between 2005 and 2007 for tuition, books, and living expenses. In her words, “the tuition itself wasn’t that bad. Taking out the loans to live in Denver is what hurt me.”
Following graduation, Alicia’s payments were substantial despite earning a social worker’s salary. She looked into the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, hoping to discharge the loan after 10 years. She applied and was told her previous lender wasn’t qualified, so she restarted her qualification timeline and consolidated her debt with an approved lender that charged a higher interest rate.
Now, with the Trump administration’s proposed changes to the program, she’s not sure it’s going to work like she expected, despite years of working for a lower salary. It’s the possibility of a broken promise that makes her the angriest. If she had to tell anything to someone else looking at how to fund school she’d say, “don’t do it this way. Find another path.”
Steve M. – 43
When Alicia’s husband Steve was looking
at college, he had no financial support
from parents and little understanding of school financing. He attended a higher
priced school, taking for granted the loan
Steve has paid $550 a month since finishing graduate school but has been accruing interest on his loan since he was 18. When combined with his wife’s payment, the impact to their budget totaled $773, causing substantial financial stress. They knew that their monthly payment was due regardless of daycare, housing, utility, and other costs, and, under the right circumstances, lenders have the right to garnish wages for non-payment.
The debt became a focus of their relationship. This was never truer than when he lost his job in 2015 and again due to COVID-19. He was grateful for the extra $600 in unemployment, which helped.
If he had to suggest an approach to students currently considering debt, he’d advise them to consider taking as many college credits as possible while in high school, and to understand how debt is going to impact their future.
Justin B. – 40
Justin was fortunate enough to have entered college with scholarships that substantially offset the cost of his education. Though he was a first-generation college student, he became as literate as possible about his school debt.
He described his school loan burden as “about as much as a car note would be” and deliberately delayed graduate school until his loan payments were complete. Then Justin arranged much of his grad school debt to be covered by his employer. Despite this planning, he still finished that degree with debt he called “about as much as the price of a luxury car payment.”
While his debt was a financial factor in his life, Justin never felt it impacted life milestones for himself or his four children. He said that if he can’t save for his own childrens’ tuition, he may simply opt to pay their loans.
Alicia D. – 42
Alicia said that her debt added up quickly, even though she attended a state school.
She studied for her bachelor’s degree in chemistry but never received her degree – partially due to concerns about how much it cost. With principal and interest, she has paid $350 a month, for 15 years, a total of $63,000.
When it came time to making loan payments, Alicia shared that “trying to pay it off as a single mom – with daycare and student loans, was challenging.“ She was working retail and living paycheck to paycheck. Ultimately she moved in with her mom, something that’s had lifelong impacts for the family.
Alicia finally paid off her debt in 2018 when she was just shy of 41. When she talks about the experience, she says that “I was excited to go to college. It was the next step. It was just what you did. But I was too young to really understand what it [the debt] meant. I don’t know if I could have understood. . .”
Eva K. – 60’s
In the mid-1970s, Eva earned her associate’s degree from Front Range Community College, and her bachelor’s degree in social work from CSU. While she doesn’t remember her exact loan amount, she recalls that even at that time, it took years to pay off.
Once she had her degree, Eva wasn’t able to do the social work she intended due to debt, so she returned to school and earned a degree in food service management for clients on Medicaid and Medicare; she managed kitchens in nursing homes. Eventually, she was able to get back into social work as a case manager for people with intellectual disabilities for Imagine! in Lafayette.
In 2005 Eva decided to earn her master’s degree, accruing about $30,000 plus interest. She pays $162 a month and is grateful for an interest rate below 2%, allowing her to finish repayment in a few years. She also looked to take advantage of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, but said she had the wrong kind of loan for the program.
Eva feels that her degrees were worth the debt but has sympathy for what younger students have to cope with. “I don’t think people in other countries are quite as saddled as our young folks are with this kind of debt. It’s a lot.”
Lisa M. – 32
By the time Lisa completed her degree in biology she had accrued $42,000 in debt (at eight percent) and had been paying interest since the end of high school.
Looking back, she sees that the interest rate was a large part of what made her debt spiral. She graduated just two years after the 2008 recession, took seasonal work, and agreed to an income-based repayment plan. Though affordable, taking just ten percent of her income, the monthly payment went largely to interest.
As she began to become more financially literate, her debt history took a turn for the better. When she went for her graduate degree, she chose to pay for it in cash while working full time. Once Lisa received this degree and her income grew, she dedicated the increase to paying off her initial loan by age 30.
Though there are a lot of positive parts of her story, the road to being debt free wasn’t easy for Lisa or her husband. Overall, the debt contributed to the couple’s residence in a small, uninsulated apartment they jokingly named “their shoebox.” Icicles would form inside the windows in winter.
Remarkably, Lisa paid off all her loans three and a half years ago, and now the couple owns a townhome in Boulder County. When asked how she’d do things differently if she had the chance, she says, “I’d take the debt again. Education led me to where I am now. But I would have been more proactive in learning to manage it after school.”
Kendra J. – 50
Kendra was the first person from her family to go to college and, due partially to scholarships, finished her bachelor’s degree with just $8,000 in loans. Her graduate degree cost a bit more: $78,000. With interest, she estimates she’s paid more than $120,000. She still owes $21,000.
Currently, as her income has been cut due to COVID-19, Kendra is struggling with the fact that there’s not a lot of pandemic related help for managing her loan balance because it’s a private student loan. While she did receive a three-month forbearance due to financial hardship, she was still required to pay the interest on the loan.
At one time, her loans cost $850 a month. She tried to take advantage of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program but said there was “always just one little thing wrong that kept me from participating.” At this point, the forbearance she received meant she’d have to restart the 10-year clock on qualifications for having the balance of the loan forgiven.
She always paid what was due but told us her loan has affected what she’s been able to set aside for retirement, how quickly she’s been able to pay off medical debt for herself and her two daughters. She hasn’t been able to travel and has always driven an older car. “It just really affects what you can do. They’re really quick to report nonpayment.”