Today, 42 million Americans owe a combined $1.3 trillion in student debt. For many, student loans have been a ticket to a good education and a good job. But more than 8 million borrowers have defaulted on their student loans, and as Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has reported, for millions more, the financial burden of student loans has altered lives, relationships, even retirements. Here’s a look at how people are coping with their debt.
‘A million-dollar family’
Maureen and Robert Rose, North Attleborough, Massachusetts
Occupation: Math teacher and technician
Their children’s student loan balance (combined): $544,000
Robert Rose, 60, works as a technician for Verizon, and his wife, Maureen Rose, 57, teaches seventh-grade math. They live in North Attleborough, Massachusetts. They aren’t rich, but they wanted good educations for their son and three daughters.
“Strong academics” were a family priority, Maureen Rose said. “No ifs, ands or buts.”
The children were bright and worked hard, their mother proudly says, and they did well in college. Academic scholarships helped pay part of the cost. Today, the three oldest have what their mother calls “career jobs.”
But all that education largely was financed through student loans, and their debt has become a burden for the entire family.
Together, the Rose children pay more than $4,000 per month on their loans, and that’s not even enough to keep them current, Rose said.
To varying degrees, “they can’t really afford their loans, never mind the rest of life,” she said.
And so their parents help them out.
“I pay $1,500 per month,” Rose said. “Every single month, every other paycheck, goodbye!”
Meanwhile, the children’s combined loan balance has topped $544,000. In the end, with interest, the total payout will be twice that amount, she said.
“This makes my family a million-dollar family in a bad financial way, unlike the million-dollar Kardashian family,” Rose said.
Of the children, Tara, 31, has the most education and the most debt. She studied art at Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida and then studied science at the University of Central Florida to prepare for graduate school. She trained as a medical illustrator at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.
Upon graduation, she got “a very good job at a great salary,” her mother said, but her loan payment is $2,500 per month on a $267,000 balance.
Ryan, 32, who sells medical devices for a company in Boston, owes the least among his siblings – $27,000 for his studies at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. His monthly payment is $500.
Casey, 28, got a degree in animal science at the University of Connecticut and works as a zookeeper in her hometown. Her balance is $87,000, with a monthly payment of $500. The payment would be far higher, but she enrolled in one of the government’s income-driven repayment programs, her mother said.
Kaitlyn, 23, got a scholarship that paid for her first year of study at private Becker College in Massachusetts. But after graduation, her loan balance was $162,000, with a monthly payment of $600. Kaitlyn works in a restaurant. In March, the loan payment is set to increase to $1,500 – “my biggest fear,” her mother said.
Their mother called the debt an “overwhelming problem,” and said she worries a lot about her kids.
“I often feel responsible for having ruined their lives by encouraging them to go to college,” she said. “But on the other hand, they are contributing to society because of their educations.”
For Rose and her husband, tight finances are a way of life. Together, they earn about $127,000 per year. But with the student loan payments on top of their mortgage and other expenses, there’s not much money left for travel, or even to paint the house for the first time in 23 years. That’s just the way it is.
“Recently, I went to one of those retirement seminars,” she said. “Afterwards, I said, ‘I’ll keep on working.’ ”
Woman embraces student debt for her ‘whole life’
Alyssum Pohl, 36, Washington, D.C.
Occupation: Communications specialist
Student loan balance: $324,989
Alyssum Pohl breezed through the University of Kentucky, winning a fellowship for outstanding academic performance and graduating magna cum laude in 2004.
Yet the extraordinarily demanding curriculum at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine came as a rude shock.
“Honestly, I went from being an A student to being proud I wasn’t failing,” she recalled of her career at the Massachusetts school. “It was all really super-demoralizing.”
Shocking, too, was the debt she ran up. Pohl said she graduated from college debt-free. But for veterinary school, she had to borrow $60,000 every year in federal and private loans.
Her academic struggles were compounded by personal problems, Pohl said.
She was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Her longtime partner had open heart surgery. Shortly before final exams in 2007, fire swept through the duplex where she lived. Among the items destroyed: many of her school notes.
At the end of the following year, Pohl said Tufts dismissed her, citing poor performance. After four years, she ended up with $250,000 in debt, no degree – and no way to pay off her student loans.
“I was completely devastated,” she said. “It took me a long time to figure it out.”
A Tufts spokesman said he couldn’t comment on individual students. In an email, he wrote that the veterinary school “provides an abundance of academic and financial guidance” to students, “particularly those challenged by the school’s rigorous curriculum.”
Ultimately, Pohl says she’s determined to push past her crushing financial burden and “live my life as best I can and just recognize I’m going to be in debt my whole life.”
To reinvent herself as an environmental scientist, Pohl said she borrowed another $50,000 for a master’s program at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey in California. That put her student loan balance above $300,000, but “it was totally worth it,” she said.
Upon graduation in 2012, she won a two-year fellowship at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, working on environmental threats to coastal areas.
After the fellowship, she had trouble finding a job.
And so, in the summer of 2015, she bought a kayak and paddled the 2,300-mile length of the Mississippi River from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.
The solo trip, financed in part with $7,000 from a Kickstarter campaign, took four months. Along the way, she documented how plastic waste is harming the water quality of the great river. She said she spoke to student groups and lawmakers and met many people who love the river. It was a great antidote to veterinary school.
“I learned that people are generous and that following dreams only improves your life,” she said.
Today, she works as a communications specialist for the Department of Veterans Affairs. She pays about $500 per month to stay current on her private loans. She enrolled in the income-based repayment program for her federal loans. Her income is so low that she hasn’t had to make a payment.
“With income-based repayment, after 25 years, they forgive your federal debt, but that year, you have to pay taxes on the amount that was forgiven,” she said.
“The taxes are going to be $100,000 – it will be a whole new desert of debt.”
Christopher Meyer, 34, Sugar Land, Texas
Occupation: Medically retired U.S. Army Captain
Student loan balance: $0
In the Iraq War, Christopher Meyer was an intelligence officer with the military police. Some experiences from that time still haunt him.
In 2008, Meyer says a village official appeared at his unit’s checkpoint at a base north of Baghdad pleading for protection from insurgent gunmen.
That night, the official was murdered and his little son was shot in the back. The boy’s mother carried him back to the checkpoint, Meyer says. He cannot get the image out of his mind.
Another night in Baghdad the following year, Meyer’s unit came under surprise rocket attack, and a round exploded just outside his tent. Nobody was killed, but the attack was terrifying. Even today, flashback memories sometimes wake him out of a sound sleep.
Meyer also severely injured his back in Iraq while loading heavy gear into a helicopter.
Meyer came home in 2009 with fierce back pain and a hair-trigger temper. He says he would become enraged and shout at his wife for no reason. They divorced in 2011.
His ex-wife moved out of state. She stopped paying on the $32,000 in private student loans borrowed so she could attend the University of Houston while he was overseas.
Meyer had co-signed for the loans and found himself stuck with her debt. He didn’t really blame her.
“But for al-Qaida, things would have been different,” he said of his marriage.
Meanwhile, at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, Meyer was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and degenerative arthritis of the spine, both the result of his service in Iraq. Doctors discovered he also was suffering from inoperable spinal tumors, he said.
Still in great pain, he is classified as permanently disabled and receives about $4,400 per month in VA disability and Social Security pay.
While struggling with his health problems, Meyer also confronted significant student debt: On top of his ex-wife’s loans, he owed $137,000 for his studies at Texas A&M University and at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston. Meyer said he tapped his VA and Social Security income to make payments that sometimes topped $1,000 per month.
In 2013, Meyer began writing to his lenders, citing his service-related disability and asking them to forgive the loans.
“I served my country with honor and ask that my request be carefully considered,” he wrote.
The U.S. Department of Education forgave more than $110,000 in federal student loans under terms of a program to help disabled vets. Wells Fargo Bank voluntarily forgave $27,000 in private loans. Meyer was deeply grateful. “They showed mercy,” he said.
But it was a different story when it came to his ex-wife’s two private loans.
Rhode Island-based Citizens Bank refused to forgive the balance on what had originally been a $5,000 loan. The bank offered to reduce Meyer’s payments temporarily, with higher payments later on. He declined.
Meyer said he got the runaround concerning his ex-wife’s other loan, which originally was $27,000.
The loan was held by an investment entity called the National Collegiate Student Loan Trust 2007-4, according to Meyer. A prospectus says the trust was created by a subsidiary of First Marblehead Corp., a student loan finance company in Massachusetts.
Meyer said he wrote to the trust’s board, but his certified letters were returned unopened. Then he wrote to First Marblehead. A lawyer replied, saying First Marblehead was not affiliated with the student loan trust and thus could not help him.
Dubious, Meyer said he got a phone number for the trust and called. The call was answered, “First Marblehead Corporation,” he said. The First Marblehead lawyer has not responded to a request for comment.
In the end, Meyer heard from American Education Services, a giant loan-servicing firm based in Pennsylvania that collected payments on his loan. The firm sent Meyer a form letter refusing his request for debt relief.
Meyer resents the way he was treated.
“These private student loan lenders are too ashamed to tell a disabled combat veteran the truth,” he said. “I would prefer an honest denial to a disingenuous runaround.”
Today, Meyer is remarried. With his new wife’s help, he paid down his ex-wife’s loans, and recently, he borrowed $15,500 from a bank to pay off the loans entirely. In all, he wound up paying $54,000 on his ex-wife’s $32,000 debt.
The interest rate on Meyer’s new bank loan is a hefty 11.8 percent, but he says it’s worth it just to be done with student loans and lenders.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a totally disabled veteran,” he said. “I could be dying right now, and the lenders wouldn’t care.”