The Personal Stakes of Student Debt

About one in six American adults has student debt. If you’re one of them, we want to hear from you.


An Everyday Worry

Over Thanksgiving, just before helping ourselves to another round of leftovers, my niece and I got talking about her student loans. What struck me the most was her answer to this: How often, I had asked, do you think about that debt?

“Oh, every day,” she immediately replied.

Every day?

Yes, pretty much. “More often than it is good for me to think about it.”

Megan has attended nearly half a dozen colleges — some nonprofit, some for-profit, many online — as she’s tried to sort out her path. That’s left her with tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

Part of why this is always on her mind is because of her inbox. She struggles with payments so she gets messages from her lenders, of course. But she also gets emails, more than once a week, from Sallie Mae asking her if she might want to borrow more.

“Still need money for school?” one subject line inquires.

If there’s one word to describe her feelings about student debt, Megan says it’s this: Overwhelming.

Tell Us Your Story

About one in six American adults has student-loan debt — which totals about $1.5 trillion. That’s more debt than Americans owe on their car loans and more than they carry on their credit cards.

We talk a lot about student debt on a macro level, especially now as politicians sound alarms and offer plans to forgive loans for college. We also often talk about it in only the most dire of terms, through extreme stories that paint all debt as bad.

We want to hear the full range of stories, to capture more of the nuances of the values and drawbacks of borrowing for college. And we want to hear more about the real ramifications of this debt, on a personal level. What is it actually like to live with it?

How does borrowing for college affect people’s dreams? How does it change them and their everyday lives? For many, surely, student loans open up opportunities. At the same time, they become a weight.

We want to hear from the people who have the most at stake in these broad national policy discussions: the people who are on the hook for paying the student debt back. We’re collecting personal stories about borrowing for college here. Please share your experience, and encourage others to share theirs, too.

— Sara Hebel

Higher Ed Reporting in Colorado

We’re excited to be collaborating with Chalkbeat in Colorado to help them expand their coverage into higher education. They’re hiring a new reporter for the beat. Please spread the word about the job, which is based in Denver (and apply if you’re interested!). See the Chalkbeat ad here.

‘The Free-College Fantasy’

That’s the title of an essay from Kevin Carey that ran this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education. (It’s an update of a Washington Monthly version he wrote in the summer.) Carey, the director of the education-policy program at New America, argues that the real problem with the “free college” proposals being talked about by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders is that they would further solidify the injustices of the current system.

Those plans “would force the federal government to make up the difference between the funding that states already provide and the funding necessary to make tuition free,” he writes. “This approach takes the vast disparities and injustices of the existing higher-education funding system and bakes them in place, punishing the states already doing the most to support students and rewarding the ones doing the least.”

Take Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Total spending per student is roughly similar, but “one sticks students with most of their college bill; the other does not.” Does a free-college program that gives Pennsylvania a much better deal make any sense?

Carey suggest a more radical approach: cut out states as the middleman and have the federal government give grants directly to any college willing to charge zero tuition and fees for all students.

The whole piece is worth your time.

Bonus: Tony Carnevale from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce tackled what “free college” really means in a post this week. And the center released this handy primer called Free College 101 that tries to unpack all the terms in the debate.

Spotlight

NCAA Looks Other Way as Athletes Punished for Sex Offenses Play On

An investigation by the USA TODAY Network identified 28 current and former athletes who, over the past five years, transferred to other NCAA schools despite being administratively disciplined for a sexual offense at another college. Five others continued playing after being convicted or disciplined for such offenses through the courts. (USA Today)

College Fairs Might Seem Ho-Hum. Until You Meet the Rural Students at This One.

Come inside Northern Arizona Region College Night, which — in a mostly rural swath of the Southwest — spans the distance between higher education and a realm it often overlooks. For some lucky students, applying to college is routine; in Arizona outposts such as Lake Havasu City, Prescott, and Winslow, it can feel like tackling a riddle in a foreign tongue. (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

In a Tiny Vermont Town, A College Closes and the Local Economy Slips

Of the 10 nonprofit private colleges to close or merge across the country this year, three were within a 100-mile radius in southwestern Vermont. Here’s what it means for small towns like Poultney. (WGBH)

Betsy DeVos Overruled Education Department Findings on Defrauded Students

The education secretary says many students who were defrauded by for-profit colleges don’t deserve full relief from their loans. Department memos show career staff arguing the opposite. (NPR)

Recommendation Corner

Add another thing to the long list we can all agree make New Jersey the best state: the official government Twitter account. (From a profile of the woman behind the account: “We really wanted to be more engaging, more human. I don’t want to be like another state. I really wanted to find the essence of Jersey.” Mission accomplished.)

Other stuff we liked this week that has nothing to do with higher ed:

  • This interview about wealth taxes by Chris Hayes with Gabriel Zucman, an economist who has worked with the Democratic candidates on their proposals.
  • Tree Man. A 2015 documentary about a French-Canadian who travels every year to Manhattan and lives out of his van while he sells Christmas trees.

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