When Josh Gyory, a 28-year-old Ph.D. candidate at Carnegie Mellon University, walks into a Giant Eagle, he automatically thinks about more than $100,000 he owes in student debt.
He even looks up coupons online ahead of time.
“It's strange because even when I'm going to the grocery store, I have in my mind that I need to save as much money as I can,” he said.
From a young age, Gyory loved building things and wanted to be an engineer.
Now, as he pursues his research, the federal and private loans he used to finance his time at the University of Pittsburgh and now CMU have become ingrained in his life. To stay on top of them, he created an extensive spreadsheet to review and update his payments. So while he’s trying to pursue his dream, the debt feels like something he carries with him — with every bill and every trip to the store.
He’s not alone. America’s student loan burden totals $1.7 trillion, impacting 44.7 million people nationwide. In Pennsylvania, more than 1.7 million residents have unpaid student loans, totaling $61.5 billion. For many former students, carrying tens of thousands of dollars in debt — or more — seems inevitable.
But while it’s a common experience, it’s a bargain that many students aren’t prepared for when agreeing to loans they could be paying off for much of their working life.
“It's like climbing a mountain with bricks on my back. I'm still going to climb the mountain, I'm on this journey,” Gyory said. “But with the student loans I have right now, I feel like it's so much extra weight and pressure on me and my life.”
College loan relief has once again surfaced on a national level as legislators propose different amounts of debt forgiveness for student borrowers. But loans are more than a policy issue or financial matter.
Once a college loan is taken out to help finance post-secondary education, borrowers must navigate a complex process of paying back loans, from saving on groceries to figuring out how to finance their own children’s college experience without the heavy burden of debt.
Rising cost of college
For generations, college has been seen as a stepping stone for social and economic mobility. People with a bachelor’s degree have higher earnings, lower rates of unemployment and higher civic engagement; that’s still true.
But college has become more expensive across the country. Americans have seen a 67 percent rise in wages since 1970, but the cost of rent, college and homes have increased at faster rates, according to Student Loan Hero, a company that helps student loan borrowers manage their debt.
In 1987, the cost of college tuition at a private institution for one year was $15,160. In 2018, the cost went up to $34,740 (a 129 percent increase). For tuition at a public university, the cost went from $3,190 in 1987 to $9,970 in 2018 (a 212 percent increase).
At the same time, state funding has declined, putting more of a burden on students to pay for higher education.
From 2008 to 2019, Pennsylvania has cut higher education funding by more than 33 percent and the average tuition at public colleges went up by 20 percent, according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. In a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Pennsylvania was ranked as the sixth-worst state for higher education funding.
Some loans to help finance higher education are funded by the federal government — and are now the subject of a debate over whether debt should be wiped clean. There are also other types of loans offered by private lenders, often with a higher cost to pay back. Meanwhile, loans have become easier to access compared to need-based federal financial aid like Pell Grants, which covered over half of public college costs in the 1980s but just 28 percent in the 2020-21 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The debate over college debt quickly collides with racial wealth gaps.
Black students usually take on more debt to pay for higher education and have limited family resources or access to parental wealth compared to white students.
Education around financial literacy
Letty Maxwell knew going to college would be a ticket to success not only for herself but also for her family. As the first member of her family to attend college, Maxwell, now 50, had some scholarships for track and field but also took out loans.
After getting her bachelor’s degree in 1993 from the University of Pittsburgh, she pursued her master’s in education at Pitt in hopes of earning a better salary. Then the bill for her master’s program showed up.
“I had this dream, and I was told at an early age that education was the key. It was the ticket. But no one informed me how to do that so that I was not paralyzed.”
She owed around $75,000, a level of debt that brought her to tears.
In the late 1980s, Maxwell said, understanding how to finance college was not something her grandparents who raised her or others around her knew how to do.
“They did not have the information and that is where the gap starts,” she explained.
Maxwell, who is still paying off her loans, turned to research to figure out what to do next and found a path through her Ph.D. She also started planning for her son’s education when he was young. She and her husband drilled into him the impact of student debt, she said.
Her son, who is now 28, even decided against law school and pursued his master’s degree instead, partly because he didn’t want to deal with the burden that comes with loans like his parents have, Maxwell said.
As a board member for the African American Alumni Council at Pitt, Maxwell is working to introduce financial wellness to Black families so that the ticket to success is not loaded with paralyzing debt.
Black exceptionalism: Fear of failure
Growing up with examples like “The Cosby Show” and pressure from family, community members and people from church, Owen Weston felt something common among Black students bound for college: a need to succeed.
Weston jokes that he planned on becoming a self-made man working as the chief executive designer of the Ford Motor Co. by age 28.
“We have to succeed. We have to get through this. There was no other option that we saw,” said Weston, now 52.
Weston was a first-generation college student, and he knew he couldn’t rely on his mother’s income to pay for his education.
When he took out loans to attend Pitt in 1986 — between $10,000 and $15,000, he recalls — Weston knew he would have to finish school.
Overwhelmed by the constant pressure, both financial and from family, he dropped out for four years and had part of his wages garnished. For people who stop paying back their loans, or default, the federal government can take up to 15 percent of their income to go against the debt.
He stopped taking phone calls from friends, kept conversations brief with family and even stopped going to church because of the disappointment he felt for not finishing school, he said.
“If financial literacy was a subject matter back then, I would have done much better with managing how I financed my way through school,” Weston said.
He began working for U.S. Steel at 22 as a maintenance manager. A couple of years later, the company offered to pay for him to finish the rest of his mechanical engineering degree. He graduated in 1997. He also earned a master’s degree and paid off his loans; he now serves on the executive board of Pitt’s African American Alumni Council to help educate the next generation.
“A lot hasn’t really changed in terms of the pressure we put on the Black man and the Black woman to be successful and college being the avenue to do that,” he said.
Weston decided his 20-year-old son would take out small amounts of student loans to help him learn how to properly navigate them and understand terminology like interest rates — partly because loans are inevitable, he said.
In his view, it’s also crucial for Black students to know that, though there are success stories, there are also moments of struggle.
Is debt inevitable?
While college has swelled in expense, there are cheaper alternatives to a four-year school.
Will Sealy, co-founder of Summer, a student loan support company, said state schools and community colleges are a good avenue to better paying jobs and less debt.
“Now, it's important to keep in mind that even as bad as student debt is today — and it really is bad — going to college is still a good return on investment for the vast majority of college students,” Sealy said.
But students from state schools still hold plenty of debt — particularly in Pennsylvania — and Sealy recommended prospective students review the average debt for borrowers for the schools they’re interested in.
“So the nuance here is weighing, how do you find a program that's not going to rack up infinite amounts of debt or incredibly high sums of debt but still provide you a valuable education,” he said.
Cirina Nevarez weighed those benefits before taking on debt.
Originally, she had her sights set on going to a four-year institution. She was ready for her “new life.”
But the summer right after high school, she pivoted.
“I wanted to be financially independent as soon as possible, and I knew that would be really hard taking out a lot of loans,” she said. “It just felt daunting and it was something I knew I didn’t want to do.”
So Nevarez, now 25, spent two years working at Walgreens and attending community college in her home state of Illinois. She researched salaries, job prospects and figured out she was interested in statistics and then transferred to a four-year college.
She took out loans for community college, but she said it was nothing compared to the loans she would have needed for a four-year college. Looking back, she said part of her decision stemmed from her mother’s honesty about their financial status; the idea of taking on debt was anxiety-inducing.
“I was obsessed with making the right decision, which is hilarious because there isn’t one single right decision,” she said.
After working for three years at an economic consulting firm, she paid off $6,000 of the $18,000 in student loans and decided to apply for additional loans to go back to school, adding about $40,000.
Nevarez now attends the business school at CMU as a Consortium Fellow — a full-tuition, merit-based fellowship that covers tuition for a master’s in business administration and other fees for two years of study, according to the university.
The interest rates on her loans are relatively low, between 3.76 percent and 4.29 percent. She believes she’ll be able to pay them off once she is working again.
“It’s just something that is going to be there for the next few years.”
Student debt relief
With 44.7 million Americans facing student debt, there’s one solution that could make an immediate difference: Forgive it.
President Joe Biden’s administration has shown some interest in loan forgiveness — at least partially.
Biden has said he supports canceling $10,000 in individual student debt, a good deal short of the $50,000 figure floated by some Democrats and advocates. He has recently taken targeted action to cancel some student debt and asked his education secretary to examine the limits of his executive authority.
While college loan forgiveness is popular, it’s also controversial. Borrowing for college is not inherently bad.
For many families, especially those in the middle and upper classes, student loans can broaden opportunity and be a stepping stone to success. Some experts argue that student borrowers are able to obtain higher wages and contribute more dollars, in general, to local economies.
“The investment in education will pay off individually in terms of higher earnings and socially in terms of contributions to the community,” said Beth Akers, a higher education scholar at American Enterprise Institute. “In some sense, debt can allow an individual to make a higher contribution to their community.”
Borrowers who are most likely to default on their loans are often people who have taken out less than $5,000 in debt, so a proposal that would forgive up to $5,000 would help the people who need it the most, Akers said.
Another issue with the loan-forgiveness plans: While loan forgiveness would reduce or eliminate the debt burden of current borrowers, it wouldn’t keep future debts from piling up for new borrowers.
“You can drain the bathtub,” Sealy said, “but if the faucet is still running, water is going to fill the tub right back up again in not a lot of time.”
Federal forgiveness would also only apply to federally backed loans. It doesn’t apply to private loans from banks.
So what could help?
In an informal survey of local borrowers posted online to help report this story, respondents said they would like to see expanded loan forgiveness programs, consolidation of private loans into federal loans, increased funding for colleges and canceled interest rates.
Along with debt relief, borrowers said they would like to see a better advertised and more transparent repayment process outlined before applying for loans, something Akers said is not as clear as it is for things like car loans and mortgages.
Universities are also keenly aware of the debt burden, and schools like Pitt have created initiatives to help students with college loans through financial aid programs that offer $5,000 to some students once they graduate, or via matching federal Pell Grants.
At CMU, fewer than 1% of students fail to pay back their loans, according to the federal education department. In the 2019 fiscal year, CMU awarded $109.5 million in grants to 45% of the undergraduate students in an effort to expand student aid.
Louise Seamster, a University of Iowa professor with a focus on race and economic inequalities, said canceling $50,000 of federal debt could be an important step in reducing racial wealth gaps.
College debt is not isolated from other systemic inequities. Black students and students from other marginalized groups face higher barriers to paying off debt, even as college is seen as an important step to higher earning. After graduation, Black borrowers owe 50% more in student debt than white borrowers, according to the Brookings Institution. And that gap increases.
Though college can be an opportunity for a better life, issues of wealth gaps, discriminatory hiring practices and other systemic issues still exist.
“I think a lot of people, understandably, have taken that to heart and gone to college, and they've done what they were told to do and what was expected, and then society did not follow through on their side of the bargain,” Seamster said.
Student debt is forced upon people
For Will Murray, one major problem with student debt is awareness.
The 25-year-old nuclear engineer said he thinks he’ll be able to pay off his student loans by age 30. But it’s far from the path he expected.
“When you're younger, the idea is that if you need to buy something you just pay for it, nobody really covers financing and long-term loans ... nobody tells you about the lifestyle,” said Murray, a Ross Township resident.
In high school, Murray thought about going to Community College of Allegheny County because he felt paranoid about college debt.
After a conversation with his parents, he went to North Carolina State University for a more traditional college experience. There, he learned that getting a nuclear engineering degree could happen in multiple ways — from paying for college to joining the military.
His undergraduate degree cost around $120,000, and he had $84,000 in loans, he said. He’s been able to get his master’s degree and a job in nuclear engineering that helps him pay off at least $15,000 a year.
While education brought him better opportunities, he's concerned that access to higher education often hinges on debt.
“The biggest issue I have with student loans is that it is almost forced,” Murray said.
Now when he is invited to speak to student groups at places like North Hills High School, Murray talks honestly with students about debt because it is part of the college process that goes unspoken, he said.
“The weird thing is, I'm having a success story where I got my four-year degree, and stuff I did during my four-year degree got me into a paid master's program,” he said. “I have a nice job right now with an income that can pay off my debt. But I am one of the lucky few that had that opportunity.”
This story was produced in partnership with Pittsburgh Magazine.
Naomi Harris covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Matt Maielli.