Federal student loan payments resume this month after a three-year pause. WBEZ is answering questions from Illinois borrowers and sharing their reflections on what the pandemic-era pause has meant to them, how they’re managing the payment restart and whether their debt was worth it.

It was in her third year after graduating college when Brianna Kidd started to panic.

The Brookfield resident was working and paying her monthly student loan bill, but her minimum payment wasn’t making a dent in her balance.

“It just cripples you,” Kidd said, “when you see that you’ve gotten nowhere.”

The 30-year-old had graduated from Elmhurst University in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology  and $42,000 in student debt. For three years all of her monthly loan payments had been going toward interest, not the principals.

It was a turning point for Kidd who, as a Black woman, represents one of the demographics most burdened by student debt. A year after completing a bachelor’s degree, Black women on average hold $38,800 in federal loans, according to research from the nonprofit The Education Trust. That amount, which is close to what Kidd owed, far exceeds the average debt held by any other group.

“It’s scary, not just that they have the most debt, but they’re less likely to get higher paying jobs, are less likely to own homes … are less likely to start businesses,” said Kidd, a claims adjuster at National Van Lines in Chicago’s western suburbs. “The list just keeps going on and on.”

Black women often have to borrow more money to pay for college and usually earn less after graduating than their white classmates to be able to pay it back, the research found.

The Education Trust report showed that Black women with a bachelor’s or higher and full-time employment had median earnings of $60,681 in 2020, compared to $91,805 for white men.

The path out of student debt

Kidd knows all this – and it seems to have lit a fire.

“When it comes to this aspect of my life with these student loans, I refuse to be the statistic. I want to be the outlier,” she said between bites of lunch outside her office in an industrial stretch of Broadview. “And I will be that. Give me two more years. I’ll be done with this.”

Kidd realized she needed to pay more each month so she could cover her interest and chip away at her loan principals. In a little notebook, she drafted her 10-year plan. She wrote down how much she needed to earn hourly to make a real difference.

“I started working two jobs to try to make these ends meet and also to be able to save,” she said.

She stuck to a strict budget and cut back on eating out, including at Potbelly’s. She is a self-professed fanatic.

Then, when the payment pause was announced at the start of the pandemic in 2020, she did something counterintuitive. Kidd not only continued to make payments  she made bigger ones.

“I would pay a lump sum,” she said, “then just knock another one out, knock another one out.”

Because interest was on pause, all her payments went toward her loan principals. Scrimping and scrounging, Kidd brought her balance from $37,000 to $10,000. Now she’s on track to pay off her loans in two years.

“I can’t wait,” she said. “I’m so excited to be done with this. Because then I get to start my life.”

Years of sacrifice

Kidd may soon be debt-free, but getting to this point has required some tough choices.

“My story isn’t a one-size-fits-all for everyone,” she said.

She considered graduate school but opted against it because she didn’t want to take on more debt. She works two jobs as a claims adjuster and an insurance agent so when she is finished working her 9 to 5, she goes home and works a few hours more. And she lives with her dad.

“I don’t have my own house, I don’t have my own apartment,” said Kidd, who grew up in Westchester, not far from where she lives now. “I do pay rent, but I don’t have to pay for rent and utilities all by myself.”

She dreams of buying a house with enough kitchen counter space to cook meals with her favorite spices: smoked paprika and cumin. She wants two bathrooms so she doesn’t have to wait on anyone.

She thinks she can start saving up for a down payment after her debt is gone.

“I’ll be able to be in the beginning steps of adulting, like I’ve always wanted to,” she said. “I just wish it didn’t take me up until I was 30.”

Lisa Philip covers higher education for WBEZ, in partnership with Open Campus. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @LAPhilip.

Higher education reporter for WBEZ Chicago in partnership with Open Campus.