Over the span of 12 years, Shajuan Taylor attended four different universities before receiving her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and psychology in 2017.
A spate of health problems kept interrupting Taylor’s education: Her daughter had spinal cord surgery that resulted in temporary paralysis; her son had multiple heart surgeries; Taylor herself had six brain aneurysms, then colorectal cancer. She had to prioritize working to take care of her family.
“I didn’t have enough money to raise four kids, maintain a household, and still be able to live,” she said.
Yet she pressed on to pursue her degree—and racked up about $115,000 in student loan debt.
For many ordinary American parents, the accrual of student loan debt has become a barrier to financial prosperity for their households. They struggle to prioritize the payments when faced with everyday expenses like food, housing, and childcare, or to plan ahead for long-term aspirations like owning a home.
And life gets in the way: People experience unexpected health issues, and a volatile employment market can restrict the ability to wipe balances clean. But the debt always lingers, and the interest builds—sometimes ballooning to far more than the original loan.
Americans owe about $1.62 trillion in federal student loans. On August 24, President Joe Biden announced that the government would cancel federal loan debt up to $10,000—or up to $20,000 for the approximately 60% of borrowers who had Pell Grants, usually individuals from lower-income households. The plan would cover about 43 million borrowers.
Some parents say Biden’s cancellation plan will help; others contend that it won’t even make a dent in their debt. Still, most maintain hope for deeper change to make education less expensive, for the sake of their own children’s chances of success.
Many parents say they chose to invest in higher education for themselves not realizing it would end up being such an ongoing strain. Doug Weissman, a 36-year-old travel writer, pursued a master of fine arts in creative writing, “under the impression that it would help my career growth,” he says. “And it didn’t.”
He started the University of San Francisco program when he was 25. “How much [did] I really know about financial stability at that time,” muses Weissman, whose debt currently stands at about $35,000.
His wife, Lisa, whose debt is much higher from her undergraduate and graduate studies, also believed her degrees would help her land higher-paying jobs. “That’s what we were promised, right?” he says.
Instead, the pair have massive student loan debt, which they must balance with expensive living costs in Los Angeles, where they want to stay for proximity to extended family and for Lisa’s job at the Getty Villa museum in Malibu. Weissman has a full-time position, but also does freelance work to cover costs.
“Our student loan payment takes a back seat to paying rent, or paying our mortgage, or paying our grocery bills,” he says.
Other parents similarly took out debt for degrees that they were confident would help career prospects. Allison Collins, 38, from Buffalo, wanted to become an educator, for which a master’s is required in New York state.
“If I wanted to do what I love, I had to [take out loans],” she says. Over the years, she had difficulty finding work as a music teacher, and she’s now a stay-at-home mom of three young children. She and her husband are still paying off her remaining $20,000 in debt, paid down from a total of $40,000 eight years ago.
Kevin Denny, 38, who lives in Selma, Texas, says he’s in a much more fortunate position, with a relatively high-paying job in software development. He’s steadily paid down his loans, from $29,000 to $12,000, which he accrued while getting a computer science degree at Virginia Tech.
But his wife, Jamie, racked up student loan debts to the tune of $120,000. Loan debt forgiveness will help them focus on paying down her sum, as well as about $60,000 in credit card debt.
While optimistic during our phone call, Denny texted me 15 minutes afterward with bad news. “Conversation just changed, I was laid off,” he texted. “Go figure. So yeah, this will REALLY help our household now.”
His sudden shift in fortune illustrates how quickly things can change, making it hard to financially plan when the debt is always looming. It’s been a similar situation for 51-year-old Taylor, whose family health issues complicated matters.
Taylor, who lives in Oak Park, Michigan, says about $61,000 of her total debt has so far been forgiven, due to a combination of medical reasons and for-profit schools she attended that were later found to have defrauded borrowers. But the bulk of the remainder is surging due to interest from forbearance, which she had claimed when she couldn’t work in the midst of her medical crises.
“It does scare me that you can [take] out a student loan and end up paying that amount two or three times over before you’ve paid it off,” she says.
Even those who are able to make monthly payments watch their balances rise due to compounding interest. Weissman is on an income-driven repayment plan (IDR), which qualifies people for reduced monthly payments if their incomes are lower. But the payments often come out to less than the interest owed, so the balance keeps surging.
“I just watch it creep back up,” he says. “Why am I pouring money into an endless pit?” (Biden’s plan will address IDR plans, driving down repayment burdens from 10% of discretionary income to 5%, and would cover any unpaid interest.)
According to a survey by Parents Together, a national nonprofit that helps parents support their children, 33% percent of respondents said their debts had prevented them from buying a home. Taylor has rented her whole life.
“Regardless of what my credit scores were, they saw all the student loan debt, and that was the problem,” she says. Thanks to the freeze on debt repayments, first instated by then-President Donald Trump in March 2020 and now extended by Biden until January 2023, she has been looking into finally purchasing a home, noting that a mortgage agent said she could be approved.
After the debt cancellation—$20,000 as a Pell Grant recipient—and the possibility that more of her balance will be canceled because of medical issues, Taylor says she may also be able to afford a new car. And she hopes to be able to pay off her medical bills (one of her brain surgeries cost $214,000 before insurance; she still owes about $13,000 for the procedure).
Weissman, the travel writer in Los Angeles, bought a home last year, which he says was possible only because of the repayment suspension instituted by the White House. Like Taylor, he and his wife haven’t been able to save money, but they were able to redirect about $550 each month toward other debt and their mortgage.
Even so, he couldn’t put his wife on the loan title because of her student debt, and, he says, “I barely, barely made it with mine.” He anticipates that when their loan payments resume, “there’s no way that I would have the same kind of life balance. There is that fear of, do I have to choose between paying my student loans or paying for my daughter’s preschool?”
Biden’s debt forgiveness plan would bring Weissman’s sum down to $25,000, which, paid on a monthly basis over 30 years, spares him only about $50 or $75. For Lisa, who owes much more: “She basically shrugs it off like, ‘big deal.’ It doesn’t make a dent in what she owes.”
There’s also worry for what comes next. In the Parents Together survey, 87% of respondents said they worry about their child’s financial ability to complete higher education.
Denny appreciates the relief for its immediate effects, but is worried for the next generation, including his two children. “I think there is a consensus that it’s not that we need to wipe the debt,” he says. “It’s that we need to not have anybody take out debt to go to school.”
After all, the relief doesn’t get to the root of the problem: the lack of affordability of higher education. Collins, the teacher from Buffalo, hasn’t even thought about paying for her kids’ college yet.
“That’s something that I know is coming, but I haven’t been able to spare too many brain cells for,” she says. “My oldest keeps talking about wanting to be a doctor and I’m like, ‘Oh, really, where’s that piggy bank?'” she jokes. “She wants to change the world, and I have a feeling she is probably going to want a good college education.”
Taylor believes Biden’s plan could have been better. She says it desperately needs to address the cost of schooling as well as predatory recruitment. “It’s like a racket,” she says. “They don’t care about whether you’re educated or not.”
In the dozen years it took Taylor to earn her degree, she studied at Phoenix University, DeVry University, and ITT Tech, all for-profit institutions that are often more expensive to attend but offer a lower-quality education. Such schools also have a history of targeting older, working adults.
Taylor says that at each school she attended, she had to take classes she’d already completed because her credits wouldn’t transfer. “They jack the prices up,” she says. “And they give you subpar education. When you sit down in that class, it’s nowhere near as educational as the class that you had before.”
Earlier this month, the government canceled about $4 billion for more than 200,000 ITT Tech students. On Monday, Biden directly addressed schools that have engaged in predatory recruiting, tweeting: “As a part of my announcement to get relief to Americans with student debt, I’m holding colleges accountable for jacking up costs without delivering value to students.” He specifically called out ITT Tech, which shuttered in 2016, tweeting that the government has terminated accreditors that “allowed such colleges to defraud borrowers.”
Still, for Taylor, there’s only one real long-term solution: “In my opinion, education should be free. Period.”