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The catastrophic recklessness and base greed represented in these statistics transcends cartoonish supervillainy.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Student Loans

According to BGR lore, Kitty and I met as randomly assigned freshman year roommates at college. We came from different backgrounds, had different interests and goals. But we had two things in common:

  1. Clothing size.
  2. Student loans.

The former meant that our wardrobes essentially doubled in size while we lived together. It was a rude awakening when I moved halfway across the country from Kitty only to realize the only shoes I owned were hiking boots. Gone were the days when I would get drunk and traipse around our apartment in Kitty’s four-inch-high red heels! Now I would have to buy my own grownup shoes!

But I digress.

The latter was the seed that sprouted into this very blog.

We each graduated with student loan debts in the tens of thousands… a fact that lands us squarely in the average of our millennial age bracket. And the year was 2009… a year after the 2008 recession and subsequent dismal job market. Fun times!

It was our joint effort to pay off our considerable student debt ahead of schedule in an unwelcoming economy that taught us the importance of financial literacy. It was a painful process, and having that debt in the first place set our financial independence back by years.

But this is not simply the origin story of your humble Bitches. It is the story of thousands upon thousands of young Americans. The current reality of student loans is a source of controversy and curiosity. And it’s time we set the record straight.

The student loan crisis, by the numbers

When student loans are discussed, there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding about how the playing field has changed over time. So let’s look at some statistics.

Between The Yeares of Our Lorde 1987 and 2016, the average cost of a four-year undergraduate degree, including tuition, fees, and housing, has increased 161%. Meanwhile, the average salary for a college graduate in the first two years of their career has increased 2.3%. That’s all adjusting for inflation.

Thanks to our friend Student Loan Hero, we also understand the following:

  • There is $1.48 trillion in total U.S. student loan debt.
  • There are 44.2 million Americans with student loan debt.
  • The average student loan debt for Class of 2017 graduates was $39,400, up 6% from the previous year.
  • There is a student loan delinquency rate of 11.2% (meaning the borrower is more than ninety days late with a payment or their loan is in default).
  • The average monthly student loan payment for a borrower between age twenty and thirty is $351.
  • And the median monthly student loan payment for those same borrowers is $203. (Fun fact: that was literally my exact minimum payment back when I had student loans.)

To put things in perspective, in 1987 students took out nearly $10 billion in Federal student loans. These days, that number is one trillion dollars.  The catastrophic recklessness and base greed represented in these statistics transcends cartoonish supervillainy.

But wait! It gets worse!

The cost of higher education has surpassed the cost of living and medical expenses by leaps and bounds. Tuition rises at an average rate of about 5.6% every year. Compare that to the halcyon days of the 1980s during which tuition increased 4.5% every year, and the even halcyonier days of the 1990s, when it rose 3.2% a year. It’s been a’risin’ for nigh on forty years!

And while it’s easier than ever for anyone to go to college thanks to all the handy student loan programs out there, the availability of these loans has fueled the rising cost of higher ed by lending too frivolously. In other words, schools know there’s money to be had in the form of student loans, so they’re charging more to get at dat sweet, sweet loan money.

As a result, a college degree that was once a coveted golden ticket to the middle class is now devalued because of the increased number of college graduates flooding the job market. So your prospects of a high-paying career right out the gate have dropped. AND YET those prospects are still better than those of someone who didn’t go to college or—worse yet—dropped out of college because they couldn’t pay the bill.

The reality of a student loan

I graduated with $28,000 in student loans, which—let’s be honest—is not that bad, compared to some of my peers (my husband, for example, who graduated $45,000 in debt). Two of my three loans were Stafford Loans with interest rates at 6.8%, and the third was a private loan at 11%. I had a ten-year repayment plan.

To illustrate just how out-of-touch older folks are with the reality of a Millennial or Gen-Zer’s student debt, I shall quote my dear friend’s mother, who said to me recently, “At least student loans aren’t that high interest. What were yours, 4%?”

Fortunately, I was able to pay my student loans off in five years instead of ten, which I brag about here:

As you all know, I struggle a bit with mathly pursuits (though I do pursue them with a literal vengeance). Nevertheless, I shall attempt to paint you a number picture of my debt if I had paid it off on schedule. (For the love of Bob someone please check my math.)

I had three loans at 6.8%, 6.8%, and 11% for a total of $28,000. If I had paid the minimum of $203 every month for ten years, I would have paid a total of $33,859.64. That’s $5,859.64 in interest alone. And it’s $33,000 I wasn’t able to save within my first ten years of post-college employment.

To review:

  1. Even adjusting for inflation, the cost of college has skyrocketed while wages have remained comparatively flat.
  2. The amount of student loan debt and the number of Americans who have said student loans has also risen faster than a soufflé in a hot oven.
  3. The worth of a college degree has dropped because of high attendance, making college practically a prerequisite to many middle class careers, rather than a rare but effective route to getting ahead.

Running the gauntlet

The student loan debt crisis would be an easier pill to swallow if it weren’t coated in corrupt, unethical shit. In fact, there are various hurdles in place making it that much harder to pay off student loans.

The Navient scandal

Remember Navient? Or one of the other many names they called themselves in order to outrun their tarnished reputation as one of the most brutal, unfair, and corrupt servicers of student loans the world has ever known?

Yeah, last we heard of them fuckers they were in hot water for allegedly cheating millions of student loan borrowers by making “”””mistakes”””” that resulted in driving up loan repayment costs for individuals. They “mishandled loan payments, buried critical information in fine print and set obstacles for borrowers trying to release co-signers from their loans, among other failings.”

In case that wasn’t cartoonishly villainous enough for you, Navient was also accused of illegally cheating struggling borrowers out of their rights to lower payments, which caused them to overpay on their loans. And they harmed the credit of disabled borrowers, including injured veterans.
“Processing payments incorrectly” sounds like just a widdle boo-boo. But when you multiply it on a national scale, it leads to the careless defrauding of some of our country’s most vulnerable: young people saddled with debt and just starting their careers in a post-2008-crash world.

The bait and switch of government reimbursement

In an effort to incentivize public service, the American government started a program that would pay off the loans of nonprofit workers. Called Public Service Loan Forgiveness, the program worked like this: you get employed at a low-paying nonprofit, pay the minimum on your student loans, and after ten years the government will pay off the remaining balance on your student loans.

Sounds like a pretty sweet deal, right? The kind of thing that might strongly encourage a young person to sacrifice a higher salary and choose to work super duper hard at a do-gooder nonprofit with the understanding that it’ll all literally pay off in the end!

Except that last year the reality of the program was completely up in the air. Journalists were calling it the “student loan bait and switch” because, as The New York Times wrote, “borrowers could not rely on the program’s administrator to say accurately whether they qualify for debt forgiveness. The thousands of approval letters that have been sent by the administrator, FedLoan Servicing, are not binding and can be rescinded at any time, the agency said.”

So imagine banking on this loan forgiveness program, only to find out like eight years in that the rug has been pulled out from under you. And all that time you spent laboring for low wages and making minimum payments on your student loan was just a huge waste of time.

It sounds like the Department of Education has sorted things out a bit since the bait and switch initially occurred, which is a relief. Except that there might not be enough money to go around, and borrowers who previously were told they were approved for the program might not actually be qualified anymore.

What’s that saying about once bitten, twice shy… ?

There’s no way out

You can declare bankruptcy to clear almost any kind of debt. And while it’s neither a fun nor easy process, it’s near impossible when it comes to student loan debt.

Which is kind of… illogical? You can declare bankruptcy after making mistakes during your adulthood—buying more house than you can afford, making a bad business investment—but not after making a decision in childhood to pursue an education to start a career and get ahead in life.

In essence, we are punishing our youngest and most financially vulnerable citizens for the decision to better themselves. And why? Why is it so damn hard to declare this kind of bankruptcy and not others? According to some (a coupla nobodies who just happen to be attorneys general), it’s because predatory lenders specifically want it that way.

And there’s fuck-all student loan debtors can do about it.

Stupid shit people say about student loan debt

The student loan debt crisis might not be so painful for individuals and a generation at large if it wasn’t used to bludgeon us over the heads as evidence of how much we collectively suck.

Besides the fact that generations are bullshit, being a millennial is actually something I’m pretty proud of. But Student Loan Debt Crisis Deniers juuuuuust don’t seem to get why belittling the hardships of student debt is pretty fucking ignorant. Not to mention cruel.

“It’s not THAT expensive to go to college…”

“Expensive” is fucking relative, you mealy-mouthed carbuncle on the big toe of humanity.

The difference in college tuition affordability between a first generation college student with no parental support and a middle class student whose parents went to college and can afford to foot even part of the bill for tuition is astronomical.

Even the more affordable college options—community colleges and state schools—are raising tuition prices. It certainly doesn’t cost nothing. And it’s kind of a dick move to judge kids for their uninformed decisions while making no mention of the system that asked them to make said decisions without the proper resources and education.

“You don’t HAVE to get student loans to get a college education…”

And the Hindsight Award for Most Unhelpful Timing goes to… this guy!

It’s certainly true that you can get a college education in the United States without student loans. But even to cover the costs of a community college or two-year program, you have to have some money. Even the most generous scholarships rarely cover the cost of books, lab fees, food, or living expenses.

And assuming you don’t have parents helping you pay, that means you’ll need to get this advice when you’re young enough to start applying to scholarships like mad (see above). Because the part-time and summer jobs high school students work certainly won’t cover the bill.

“Well IIIIIII worked during college and got a job right after…”

My dude, so did I. And so did millions of others who went to college in the last twenty years and still ended up deeply in debt. Tuition has gone up while wages remain stagnant. A summer job is no longer sufficient to pay tuition.

I made $20 an hour working as a part-time nanny during my undergrad. It was a great job, and I was paid in cash under the table. Most of that money went to food, transportation, and school supplies. And while I managed to graduate with enough savings to move across the country for a job opportunity… the money ended there. There was nothing left over for tuition.

And that first job right out of college? It paid $23,000 a year including benefits. Don’t tell me all I needed to do to easily pay my loans and save a big chunk of my income was “just” get a goddamn job.

“You signed up for the debt so now you have to live with it!”

It is mystifying to me that we expect people to make major financial decisions with long-term consequences at the age of seventeen. And that we then mock them for those uninformed, youthful decisions when they are old enough to understand what they’ve gotten themselves into.

We’ve written about it at length:

And not to point too many fingers at the older generation, but those people told us going to college was a good investment. They told us we’d be able to get lucrative jobs when we graduated. Operating under that information, fuck yeah student loans seemed like a good idea!

“You should’ve just learned a trade.”

Again, give me the use of your time machine and I’ll be happy to oblige.

But can we just talk about the myth of the easy career in a blue collar trade for a minute?

For one thing, you still need to go to a trade school, pay for training, or get certified for a number of trades (I don’t know about you, but I like knowing my electrician isn’t going to zap us all to kingdom come). All of that costs money, albeit less than traditional higher education. And it’s not easy.

For another, life is not all sunshine and roses for those who forego a college education in favor of a career in the trades. Financially speaking, a lot of those hard-working people are falling further behind their college-educated peers.

And for the record, I have never heard this condescending anti-advice from anyone who actually works a blue collar job.

“Maybe instead of majoring in women’s studies with a minor in origami you should’ve studied engineering!”

I studied publishing in college. I now work in the publishing industry. My degree led directly to a career path. But again: when I chose my degree and career path, I was young enough that I had no concept of the value of a starting salary under $30k. I made my bed and I have to lie in it, sure. But I can’t be accused of choosing a useless major.

And I certainly wasn’t familiar with the idea of calculating return on investment. If I had, I would’ve found out that it would take me nearly five years before my annual salary matched my annual tuition.

But maybe this kind of dismissive, sexist, myopic comment should best be directed at the high school guidance counselors, parents, career counselors, and professional advice-givers who tell inexperienced teenagers “It doesn’t matter what you study in college, so long as you get a degree.”

I know several million English majors who might want a word with those folks.

What can we do?

Back to our superhero origin story.

We Bitches made mistakes and learned the hard way. If it wasn’t for comparing notes with Kitty, I’m not sure I would’ve succeeded in paying off my student loans when I did.

We don’t want you, our readers, to suffer because of student loan debt. This blog is not simply a repository for our favorite dog gifs and dick jokes about money. We are writing about money shit for you.

Ironically, the only way to save young people from the crippling effects of overwhelming educational loans is… education.

We need to educate people about their options and financial responsibilities before they apply to college. We need to make sure they understand the realities of the job market, salary potential, and compounding interest so they can make informed decisions about colleges and majors.

Consider this a direct refutation of everyone who has ever criticized our juvenile tone! We’re trying to reach the young’uns! References to Sailor Moon and Disney Princesses are the only way we can convince them to read about ROI! Suffer the little children to come unto we!

It’s not all doom and gloom, of course (despite what our frequent detractors might say of our general Eeyoreism). Kitty and I are both examples of Millennials who busted their asses to pay off student debt in record time. So it can be done. Paying off debt is, after all, a pretty simple process.

But just because something isn’t complicated doesn’t mean it isn’t hard.

So let’s hear your student loan stories. Successes, failures—we want it all! We even want it from our Gen X and Baby Boomer readers. Tell us of the halcyon days of yore in which a college degree was both rare and affordable!

And by all means, if you know of any Blacke Magyck for paying off student loan debts faster, share with the whole coven!

31 thoughts to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Student Loans”

  1. Thanks for that notice about the inconsistencies FedLoan Servicing has with the loan forgiveness program. I was recently informed by a couple of folks that if accepted by the PSLF program, the government can’t rescind my forgiveness (which, to be fair, two people told me on reddit, so ymmv), but I hadn’t heard about FedLoan being that inconsistent before! It’s good to know since I am still debating on how to use my disposable monies after I get an emergency fund saved up.

    1. Definitely read up on it as there’s a lot of very confusing information out there. A lot of it has to do with general under-staffing in the federal government right now, but I would get as much concrete, legally binding documentation as possible before deciding what to do with PSLF.

  2. School Counselor here. On the point of, “It doesn’t matter what you major in” advice I think the pendulum is swinging HARD in the other direction. Pre-2008 college counseling and post-2008 college counseling are VERY different worlds. Also most counselors who I’ve come across won’t advocate for private loans- hard stop. Granted in New York there’s CUNY which is dirt cheap.

    There’s a generational change at play as well: The majority of my students do think about ROI on their college degrees and it comes up in discussions about college a lot. I actually find that sometimes I have to remind my students that there are other majors outside of STEM and business. Thinking about ROI is great, but they have to be realistic about their strengths.

    My students who had Cs in physics and didn’t test into calculus tell me they want to major in engineering. Fine and dandy to know it’s a high paying career, but even if you can get into an engineering school you’ll probably switch to something else after a semester (I’d love if you proved me wrong, but I have to go on my data).

    It’s okay to be a non-STEM kid high school students! Let’s talk about all of the jobs in growth fields that are related to your interests! Lawyer is not code for “I want to make money but I’m not really a math person.” You have to actually be interested in law (and you’ll probably be middle class). The Occupational outlook handbook from the BLS is my savior.

    1. I am SOOOOOO glad you commented! You made me feel old in the best way: because now I know that since I went to college, the advice counselors and high schools are giving has changed for the better. It also makes me happy to know that the students understand the history of the 2008 Recession and what millennials went through with private student loans. As Bob is my witness I shall never shit upon the younger generation. I can’t wait to see them thrive!

      Where do you steer kids who want to make a lot of money, but are more gifted in, say, communications and the arts rather than STEM?

  3. I am 44 years old, paid $1000 a semester for my undergraduate degree after several years at a community college and worked full-time as a waitress. My graduate degree was a whole different ball game. I took out $80,000 for a two year degree and didn’t finish until 15 years later. Initially I had one twenty year private loan cosigned from Wells Fargo 2.3% variable starting, two thirty year loans from (now) Navient (5.5% variable starting, consolidated to 3.5% eight years later), and one subsidized federal loan (2.3% fixed) and one un-subsidized federal loan (2.3% fixed). I worked my tail off to pay Wells Fargo and Navient early so I never had to deal with those fuckers again, just finishing in November (WF) and last month (Navient). I also had lots of unexpected financial bumps along the way, and will pay back my federal loans making minimum payments so I can handle more of whatever life throws at me. I was a full-grown adult at the time I took out the loans, and had no counseling about taking out that much money. I figured it was only one or two years worth of whatever minimum salary I thought I would make. WRONG! I finally finished my MA this past year and work at a university to pay for it (making much less than I made before I started my MA, and which hit how much we owe in taxes on my measly salary!). Student loans have been a monkey on my back, and I have done everything from taking on several jobs to moving my three person family into a one bedroom apartment to pay that shit down faster. It does not feel like we could ever afford to buy a home, especially with other life decisions we have made (like paying child support for the benefit of our family, which I will never regret), and we certainly cannot afford to contribute to our children’s college experience. I don’t understand how this student loan system can continue in it’s current form and not have some national financial crisis as a result in the near future. Kuddos to anyone going through this. It sucks.

  4. I started college in 2008. That was the year before Direct Loans became a thing, and you still had Stafford loans serviced/held by regular banks. I was short about $6200 for the year because my parents didn’t qualify for Parent PLUS loans (and we couldn’t have paid the non-deferred payments even if we had qualified***). I just started school anyway while we tried to find the money. But we were poor and my parents had a recent bankruptcy so I was basically up the creek. The RD came to my dorm one night with a letter that said if I hadn’t paid the $3100 I owed for that semester they would deactivate my ID card (so no dorm access, no food). In a panic we got my uncle to co-sign a Sallie Mae loan for me. He wound up taking the next semester’s bill out of his retirement after he said, by his math, that the full pay off amount for a $3100 loan would be $10,000. A year or so after I graduated my Sallie Mae loan became a Navient loan. My payment was the same and the reassuring letter said they would handle the transition. Later I took out a credit card consolidation loan that had a better interest rate than my Navient/Sallie Mae loan so I logged in to check my payoff amount and saw that Navient had switched me to a 14 year repayment plan instead of the standard 10. Luckily I just paid it off in full then and washed my hands of them.

    A few lessons there: 1, don’t trust that everything is fine when they switch your loan providers. 2: fuck Sallie Mae and Navient. 3: colleges will starve you for their money, figure it out early.

    4….some private loan providers, although you are not really supposed to use the money for student loans….just deposit the cash into your checking account for you to disperse yourself…so if you’ve paid your loans for a bit and your credit is decent enough to get a private consolidation loan it might actually have a better APR than your private student loans….don’t know what happens if you then go bankrupt on a private loan…

    ***and lastly, something I learned about PLUS loans while in college: they make it seem like you (your parents) must start repaying them immediately (as in, while you’re still in school) however there is a deferment form you can fill out and send in before you ever have to make a payment. Google is your friend 🙂

    1. Oh WOW. Yeah, I think I need to update the article to include this information right away. Holy shitballs as if it couldn’t get any worse…

      Thank you for sharing!!!

  5. It is possible though difficult, my three millennial kids got four year degrees for free by being great students and by majoring in engineering. They’re were lots of scholarships for engineering majors, even for those with high earning parents. All three went to an affordable state school desperate for brilliant kids. They all worked their own way through grad school, which is still pretty simple if you work for your university while you do it. I agree it is a herculean task if you are not on the brainy end of the curve and don’t have engaged parents to advise you. It may not be fair but the brightest kids with parents who understand the system have never had to pay for college, and still don’t.

    1. Out of all of my friends/family, I know ONE person who got a full ride (they studied engineering). One of my engineering friends took out $50k, another $80k, for their degree. I would argue it’s a “hurculean task” to get a free education even for kids who are smart. At my high school, a lot of scholarships passed over the valedictorian in favor of the salutatorian. Possibly because they knew the valedictorian had a scholarship coming from the state. While true, that was only a few thousand dollars each year.

    2. I also go a full academic scholarship, and commuted to campus to save on housing costs. I worked as a waitress o bring in extra income. It enabled me to graduate debt free. I’m really thankful my past self gave my future self so much love.

      1. I was able to get scholarships as well, but it definitely didn’t cover the full cost of my college. I think the piece a lot of young people aren’t made to consider is college ROI. That might help a lot of potential students think more strategically about scholarships and school choice. Thanks so much for commenting, Kristine!

  6. I graduated from New York University in May 2008 with just about $150,000 in debt (mostly student loans, probably 10K on credit cards). I finished paying it off in May 2017. It more or less wrecked my 20s with implications that last through today, but I honestly consider myself one of the massively lucky ones. While I majored in one field without much earning potential and pursued another as a career (smart!), I’m fortunate enough to have okay brains in my head, an innate ability to work 16+ hour days for years at a time (see: “wrecked my 20s” above), learned how to behave professionally from my parents & other adults around me growing up, and had some *ridiculously* lucky career opportunities. Without *all four* of those, that debt would have continued its wrecking ball trajectory for decades to come.

    While I know most people don’t come out of school that much in the hole, 10 or 40 or 100K aren’t fundamentally different from 150K, so I don’t really think it was exceptional, nor that it’s reasonable — even for lesser amounts — to allow 17- and 18-year-olds to unknowingly put their future selves in positions out of college that rely on topics they don’t understand and circumstances out of their control in order to succeed.

    I’m glad (nay, THRILLED) to see in a comment above that standard guidance counselor wisdom has changed quite a bit since 2004, which covers quite a few of the issues that surrounded my own lil’ situation back then. So while I could rant indefinitely (and have! frequently!) about all the effed up contributors to and results of student loans, I’ll just mention the biggest two changes that I think would have actually helped:

    – NUMBERS. I’m convinced most people in our society have absolutely no idea how to teach financial literacy to children. The concepts aren’t hard but many (most??) parents don’t do it, nor do schools. Example: all the initial documentation for my first loan (25K) listed $50 as the sample monthly interest-only payment to make while in school. Call me stupid, but despite having just aced my AP Calc & English tests and 12 years of math & English classes, I had no idea at the time how to read deeper and understand that was just an example… let alone the ability to crunch the numbers and figure out how much it WOULD be. It was a complete foreign language to me. Fast forward some weeks to finding out that payment was $250/month… AFTER I’d deposited the check and after there was no possible way to renege on the decision.

    And how about all the rest of the loans it would take to get all the rest of the way through school? I was a ridiculously hard-headed 18-year-old [no comment on present-day], but honestly think that if someone had walked me through the interest rates, what interest even was, and projected loan payments alongside project salary and expenses post-college, I would have come close to understanding what I was getting myself into. Instead, I didn’t learn ANYTHING about how to handle money until a couple years out of college when I happened upon some personal finance blogs and decided it seemed pretty darn relevant to my situation so should probably become acquainted with the topic. Nowadays I wholeheartedly believe that most high schoolers have the capacity to understand this type of math, but are not given any chance to learn or practice before actually needing to use it… this seems stupid.

    – REALITY CHECK. School is its own feedback loop and teenagers are… also their own feedback loop. I wanted to go to a “good school” (i.e. big-name EXPENSIVE school) because I thought people would be impressed by it. I’m sure I justified it in every other way imaginable at the time… but at the end of the day, that was really the reason. This might be optimistic about my 18-year-old self, but I’d like to think that if someone had sat me down to help me think about what I actually wanted out of life BEYOND school and what my values were, it would have helped me not be quite so irrational about taking on so much debt. At the time, all I’d known was school and all I could see in my immediate future was school, so it seemed like an end rather than a means — and the implications of the means on the *real* end were so abstract as to be meaningless.

    That one is probably less realistic than figuring out a way to teach teenagers how to budget, taken on debt, save, and spend responsibly, but it’s another area where I feel people that age have the capacity but aren’t given a chance to explore it. 17- and 18-year-olds shouldn’t be required to figure out what they want to do for lifelong careers, but they should know that their life (probably) won’t always be about school, and it’s important to start thinking about what they WANT it to look like sooner rather than later. And most won’t WANT to be laden down with 100, 500, or $1000+ of debt payments every month for something they finished at 22 and often has little to no directly-quantifiable value.

    Bottom line, I don’t think student loans are *inherently* bad, and for many they’re a really good option to pursue their education and the life they want. I can’t even definitively say I regret my own. But we could do so much better in giving students an opportunity to actually understand what they’re doing rather than flailing around blindly in a pool already overwhelmed by hormones and extracurricular-induced sleep deprivation.

  7. Hi, ‘01 college grad here. So not quite Gen X, not quite Millennial. But in those 7 years between my graduation and yours, student loans basically doubled. Private loans were rare when I was in college and i graduated with about 15K in debt. Mostly Stafford loans. Low by today’s standards for sure. But most were at 8.25% interest, which 22 year old me didn’t even understand what that meant. i got a 24K job in publishing upon graduation, and it took years to even hit 30K. So yeah, not much in the way of career guidance for this English major. Glad to hear that’s changing.

  8. Because of my particular set of experiences , I don’t have much knowledge of undergraduate loans. I’m intimately familiar with huge graduate school student loan balances though. Like with undergrad, average loan balances upon graduation from law school have also increased dramatically in the last decade, so our bosses generally don’t have a full sense of what it’s like now.

    Anecdotally, for my peers and I, the best way to cut the costs of undergrad was through need-based financial aid packages or merit-based scholarships offered by their school. (It generally meant not being able to go to one’s “dream school” – only a small subset of schools seem to offer particularly comprehensive need-based aid, and their formulas for calculating financial need can be restrictive and fail to take into account many family situations – that’s what I ended up lucky enough to be able to do, for an undergrad loan burden of ~12k – and the schools giving the biggest merit scholarships often weren’t the most competitive or exciting ones a student got into.) As the child of immigrant parents who didn’t go to college here, I didn’t know much about the system: I muddled through the FAFSA and CSS Profile myself with copies of their tax returns, and was lucky the school I went to was generous to families like mine.

    I think one thing people forget, for both undergrad and grad school, is that the kind of judgmental “should have just gotten a scholarship” thing isn’t that simple. Even a true full-tuition scholarship, particularly for grad school (already a very rare thing), doesn’t go all the way because of housing and other expenses. True full cost of attendance scholarships are pretty rare, and not really available to most candidates. (I had a huge scholarship to law school, approximately 1/2 tuition or 1/3 cost of attendance on a 3-year program, but still graduated owing ~185k for law school.) Law school’s also pretty weird because it can be hard to predict what’s best for employment prospects. You’ll hear different people with dramatically different views on whether picking the wrong one will seriously harm one’s career prospects. (Our field is absolutely obsessed with school rank, certain career doors get much harder to open based on the rank of one’s law school. All our current SCOTUS justices went to Harvard or Yale, after all!)

  9. I graduated from college in 2005, with a Bachelors of Urban Planning and Development. Every job in my career these past 13 years has been in local government, consulting for local governments, or state government doing effectively the same work that I studied in college. My student loan balance upon graduating was $15k, and I had the good fortune to graduate at a time when they allowed student loan consolidation to a rate of 2.85%! It still took me over 8 years to pay the f*ckers off.
    I thought I did a lot of things right when it came to paying for college: I got several small local scholarships that were available in my little hometown, I had a scholarship that paid half of my tuition all 4 years, and I stayed on-campus all 4 years so that I could lock in the 2nd and 4th year room & board rates for the price of the 1st and 3rd year (avoiding the increase by locking in a 2nd year). I also worked a BS on-campus job in the computer lab of the School of Nursing, which paid me a $5.15 then $5.25 per hour! Yippee!
    It astounds me to see the building booms that are occurring on college campuses. The technology fees, the student athletics fees, and OMG the parking fees! The rumor on our campus was that the $11M basketball arena (built in the 90s?) was paid solely by parking fee collections.
    I cannot imagine trying to navigate today’s conditions… thank you for all you’re doing for the kiddos!

  10. I’ll pick up that gauntlet and share my 1990s student loan experience:

    1992 – Earned BA financed with parental support, scholarships, student loans, and part-time + work study jobs. Left with a little over $10K in student loans (Sallie Mae/Navient) — with variable interest rates starting around 7% APR, but I believe the lending calculation during that time was 12M T-bill + 3.25% with a 10% Cap. Graduated into a recession (granted it was not like 2008, but it wasn’t pretty ).

    1995 – Earned MBA and MA financed by a partial scholarships, various loans, and several part time jobs. New student loan balance: $39K.

    Sallie Mae offered to consolidate — and I (ignorantly) said “sure”. The new APR was calculated based on the weighted average + adding a half percent and ended up with interest rate of 7.25% APR. I was thrilled about the new, lower (sounding) interest rate and making one payment per month, but the convenience came at a cost. If I had just paid the various loans at their existing rate, I would have had several different payments at several different rates, but an overall lower (weighted) interest rate. I think it is a safe bet that the increase in cost due to an increase in the number of stamps I used per month (we mailed checks back in those days!) would have been less than what I paid in increased interest.

    1999 – Discontinued a third graduate program without finishing . Final student loan balance: $62K @ 7.25% APR. That would be a little more than $93K in 2018 dollars (Reference inflation calculator at

    There were a few deferrals during the saga, and an epic battle with Sallie Mae/Navient when they made a mistake on how my additional payments were applied which led to them recalculating all outstanding balances and a significant increase in said balance. This was followed by weeks of tears, phone calls, anger, letters, more phone calls asking to speak with supervisors, phone calls asking to speak with managers, more tears, more letters, more anger, more phone calls — well, you get the picture. I finally heard about and used their ombuds program to appeal their “so sorry, that’s just the way it is” decision and had a good experience due to my fanatical record keeping and persistence combined with a very patient ombusperson. It took months to get to a resolution, but I was satisfied with it. Your miles may vary (ymmv), but if you ever have issues, and assuming they still have the program, definitely consider that route for appeals.

    I finally received the “Congratulations! You’ve completely paid off the student loans” letter from Navient in 2014. It took *26 years* between the first loan papers I signed to the final payment to rid myself of student loan debt.

  11. I am so jealous of your repayment plan. I had a private student loan for my undergraduate (I didn’t qualify for federal aid for a variety of reasons) and borrowed a happy total of €27k (yes, Euros, because even in Europe some people end up with student loans). It collected interest from day one (!) and if I pay it back in the ten year plan I am currently following, I will have paid €48k for that loan. That is €21 THOUSAND in interest. My interest is almost as high as what I originally took out.

    I have no contribution to make in these comments, I just needed to share my pain.

  12. I managed to avoid student loans, luckily, but can we also take a moment to talk about the fact that college costs are skyrocketing and the market for permanent faculty positions is cratering. Despite charging ungodly sums of money, the academy is increasingly moving to contingent labor. So the odds are high that your professors are adjuncts who have to scrape together a huge number of classes each semester to get by, don’t have an office, don’t have benefits, and don’t have job security. Anecdotally, I once taught a class literally located in the motherfucking financial district of New York – the most expensive real estate you can imagine – and got paid $2500 for the whole class. That was after the adjuncts unionized, btw. The year before they paid $1500 per class. This was in 2015.

    Mostly, your money is going to administrators and fancy facilities, not faculty. There’s not even as much going to research labs in the sciences as you would think. Those people are largely responsible for bringing in grants to fund their own students.

  13. Yesyesyesyesyes.

    I made the mistake of going to a private college (ouch) and taking out loans (double ouch). I paid the loans off in seven months last year, and I’m very proud of that. I wish I had a time machine to avoid making those decisions, but I signed on the bottom line.

    Wanting change doesn’t mean you’re shirking responsibility. We’ve just been through the other side and know what it takes to pay these loans off. It’s reaching a crisis level and leaving young professionals suffocating under debt. I don’t have all the answers, but if I could go back in time, I sure as hell would have gone to a cheaper school and paid for classes in cash.

  14. Oh man thanks for this article – we are based in Canada and just took out student loans for my partner to go to trades school. His program is cheap, he knows he likes it (working in the field for 5+ years), and he will be able to get way better jobs after, woooot! But on thing about trades (in canada) it can be really hard to find someone to sponsor your ticket or you get paid below minimum wage so watch out for that!

    Very different story from me, it all worked out for me by sheer luck – I applied to art school behind my parents back on Christmas Day because I was a cranky teenager and didn’t want to go into engineering. My school was cheap-ish, had help from my parents and worked 3 jobs, got out of there will a tiny loan that I was able to pay off the same year, cause I fluked into a high paying field out of art school (who knew). Looking back that could have blown up in my face sooooo many ways and I popped out of school at the right time for my field.

  15. Y’all. I’m so, so happy you all exist. (Berna here — I wrote about you folks for my “7 Financial Experts Who Aren’t White Dudes” blog!)

    I graduated in 2011 with $38,000 in debt, and Piggy’s whole story could’ve been pulled directly from my brain. (Including moving across the country right after graduating for a publishing job that paid me $22k! A number that only sounded cool to me while I had no sense of can-this-cover-my-shit!) Two years ago, I landed a decently paying job, focused/budgeted like a psycho, paid it all off and am now traveling indefinitely. Which is pretty cool, but like you, I’m still pissed at the situation millions of us are still in, and millions more are wandering blindly into.

    I’m creating a video series on IG & YouTube ( specifically to educate young people on how the feck money works, and will be focusing on student loans in November. Just tryna give young folks the advice no one gave us, in language that speaks to them, amiriiiiite. This whole article captures the anger and facts and voice I’d like to embody for the young folks that follow me. Thank you for everything you do. I’ll be keeping an eye on this as I create those videos — maybe we can collab, and/or just get really, really angry together!

  16. Just thinking about student loans makes me want to Godzilla stomp all the lenders. I was very fortunate with grants and scholarships, and managed to clear out my loans quickly, but the sheer evilness of the system is mind blowing. When I look at how much Europeans or Japanese people pay for college, it just seems so insane.

  17. It’s refreshing to read about student loans from someone who actually had student loans, and graduated during the recession, like I did. I graduated in December 2008, and all the job fairs were canceled. I read an article on Financial Samurai about how Sam chose to go to a public college in 1995 to save his parents money. His parents paid for school, but he claims he could have paid his own tuition working at McDonalds’s. He said that even today tuition at William and Mary is affordable if you’re working minimum wage. I did the math. You’d have to work MANY more hours today at minimum wage to pay the tuition, which he didn’t mention. And it’s easy for someone who DIDN’T pay his own tuition to say how easy it is for others. And then in the comments, everyone else chimed in and said, “There is no student loan crisis” and “millennials are entitled, etc.”
    There’s a lot of costs associated with college besides just tuition. At my school, health insurance was mandatory ($1000 a year if you had to get it from the school), and there were gym fees, technology fees, newspaper subscriptions, textbooks (and probably more things I’m forgetting). We had to pay $75 for a parking pass each year, even though that did NOT guarantee you a parking spot at my mostly commuter school. And my gram bought a computer when I started school, because I was driving back and forth to the library multiple times a week to type papers.
    And I’m still lucky. I received Pell grants and TAP because my parents were separated. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have received any aid, and my loans would be even higher. Most are locked in at 6.8%, which is ridiculous given how low interest rates are, and especially since after I graduated, they locked in rates at 4% for new students.

  18. So, you probably won’t like a lot of what I wrote in my essay about paying off my law school loans, but that’s ok. (Preview: I rant against victimhood culture.) But it is a success story – I paid off $200K never making six figures with plain old frugality. The system totally sucks, and I wish I had done things differently. But I am where I am, and I (and everyone else) can only move forward where we are.

    1. Question: what is “victimhood culture”?
      And good on you for crushing those loans! I also paid mine off through hard work and frugality (explained in the links above). When you get right down to it, that’s the only way.

    2. Ok, Tara, you never made 6 figures but if my math is right you were making at least 55,(except when you were unemployed and staying with family) cause you could afford to pay your bills and buy your vegan groceries and still put over half almost three fourths of your income towards your student loan. People in general aren’t buy lattes or fancy phone and bot paying their student loans they are buying diapers and paying rent. It’s great that you got out from under your debt but maybe get off you vegan high horse and remember that you not everyone can put over half their income towards their debt.

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