The Supreme Court has barred the Biden administration from carrying out its plan to extinguish up to $20,000 in federal student loan debt, and millions of borrowers will continue to struggle under the weight of their loans.
These are students who are lured by aggressive for-profit institutions, whose lofty promises of higher earnings never come to fruition. They are borrowers seeking advanced degrees that are often necessary for low-paying but essential jobs in social work, the classroom or the courtroom.
These are the women who take a break from the work force to care for family and can’t find their way back to the salaries they had before.
Here are brief sketches of people in other circumstances like these, who have struggled and whose challenges are likely to continue.
No Degree, but All of the Debt
Gina McDavitt, 36, is one of the millions of borrowers with student debt but no degree, a group that is more likely to slip into default.
She tried to put herself through college in her early 20s while working as a bra fitter at Macy’s and took the most practical path: She started at College of San Mateo, a community college, and had planned to transfer to San Francisco State University.
But the classes required to complete her associate degree weren’t always offered, which meant she had to wait until they were. In the meantime, the costs of attending rose — but her Pell grant and loan eligibility did not, and she soon had trouble making ends meet.
“I was effectively priced out,” said Ms. McDavitt, who left school with about $3,000 in loans, which ballooned after several deferments. “So I have, like, $8,500 worth of student loans that are for a degree that would be free now,” she added, referring to programs that make community college free for eligible students. “That paired with I live alone, I have been in the same role for a while and I am in the Bay Area and it is very expensive out here. I struggle.”
Ms. McDavitt, who lives in Vallejo, Calif., and works in customer relationship management for a transport company, said she had been passed over for several promotions because she lacked the requisite degree. She recently trained someone who was promoted ahead of her.
“As it stands now, the amount of money I make doesn’t cover my bills,” said Ms. McDavitt, whose loans fell into default just before the pandemic took hold. “I am a single person making less than $55,000 a year with no degree. The weight of the world is on my shoulders.”
Ms. McDavitt is eager to start school again but unable to afford it.
When Monica Schmidt, 44, gave birth to her son in 2008, she was finishing a big term paper in her hospital room. Five months later, she received her B.S. in nursing from the University of Phoenix.
She next pursued a master’s degree, which would elevate her to nurse practitioner and provide her with the option of teaching. Her husband, a sales manager at a food company, worked during the day while she cared for their children, who were 1 and 4. At night, she worked full time as a supervisor at a skilled nursing facility while taking classes at Northern Illinois University.
“We couldn’t afford day care, so we worked opposite shifts,” said Ms. Schmidt, who lives in Genoa, Ill., and now works as a nurse in a therapeutic day school.
But after three years of starts and restarts, the juggle became more of a struggle with their young children, and in 2013 she stopped her coursework. The debt, however, was hers to keep. She now owes $64,000, more than half of which is for her graduate work.
Once her payments restart, she’ll pay roughly $450 a month for the next 25 years, or until her retirement. She has made 52 of the 120 qualifying payments for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, but she would be required to pay roughly $900 a month, an amount her family cannot afford, especially while saving for retirement and her two children’s college educations.
“I don’t want them to be in the same situation as me,” Ms. Schmidt said.
A Different Kind of Black Tax
Recent college graduates with student loan debt like Dorien Rogers, 23, face a constant buzz of questions in their heads: Make extra debt payments or start a savings plan? Can I afford to buy a home in the community I grew up in? (In his case, in Montgomery County, Md.) What about money to start a family someday?
As a Black man, Mr. Rogers is aware that Black people are more likely to have to borrow and that Black women often struggle the most with student loan debt.
Asha Anthony, 20, a rising senior at Howard University, will leave college with a B.A. in legal communication and about $30,000 in loans. But she’s already contemplating how she’ll finance her dream of becoming a civil rights lawyer, which typically requires an additional six figures in student debt.
She has already received help from her mother — who raised three daughters, with the help of her parents, while single and will have accumulated at least $30,000 in parental loans by the time Ms. Anthony graduates. Yet her mother is still paying down student debt of her own.
“I am determined to attend law school because it is a high priority for me, as it is for many young Black people, to be able to attend graduate schools and meet the goals I have set for myself,” said Ms. Anthony, who grew up in Mesa, Ariz. “It is discouraging when thinking about potential costs, because my family can only provide so much on top of what I am able.”
Mr. Rogers also has high aspirations. He took out additional loans last year and began an online master’s degree in public administration. At the same time, he was working as a substitute teacher and a DoorDash driver and serving as the president of Maryland’s youth and college division for the N.A.A.C.P. He wants to go into politics and sees education as a kind of national mandate, especially for people like him.
“Education is a tool to better our communities, and the institutions of higher learning have been pivotal to advance our nation,” he said.
With a political science bachelor’s degree from Salisbury University in Maryland, he can’t help but wonder: If legislators chose to assist the country’s banks during the 2008 financial crisis, why don’t they believe people like him are worthy of similar investments?
“If you’re able to forgive debt, you’re going to see reinvestment in the economy,” he said. “Homeownership. Building up credit. Starting more families.”
The Parent Trap
Federal PLUS loans for parents are a product tailor made for trouble, and there’s no sign of that changing anytime soon.
That’s because parents can borrow up to the cost of their child’s entire education, and it doesn’t matter how much they earn. Moreover, lots of schools with high costs but low resources send financial aid notices to students telling them to make up their own shortfalls with tens of thousands of dollars of these loans.
Now, imagine that you have three children, are separated from your spouse and are earning just $11.50 an hour after spending years raising them. That was the predicament that Joanna Leiserson found herself in when she was living in Spokane, Wash., in 2000 and her oldest child was about to start college.
PLUS loans were the only way to afford the schools that best fit her children’s needs. After years of being unable to afford the payments — she became an Episcopal priest in 2005 — and having the debt in forbearance, she’s finally in an income-driven repayment program and has consolidated her $157,000 in debt to allow her to enroll in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Her debt will be eliminated if she works another nine years. Otherwise, it could easily be with her until she dies.
“It does weigh on me,” she said. “I’m not sure that it’s true, but it feels like society will pay for it if I don’t.”
But any taxpayer subsidy is established public policy, based on laws that both Democrats and Republicans signed off on over the years. And then there is the matter of any higher power that might have an opinion on the matter.
“I believe that God doesn’t weigh in on the specifics of our debts, but rather wants us as a community to consider the policies and the underlying principles and values of our nation and ask ourselves whether they align with God’s values,” Ms. Leiserson said. “Which is a community in which all persons can live sustainable lives of dignity and respect.”