Ann McWilliams borrowed tens of thousands of dollars to attend college – all in the name of helping people.
The 47-year-old struggled with drug addiction in her early 20s, but by 30 she was in recovery and figuring out what to do with her life. McWilliams, who lives near the small towns of Kalispell and Whitefish in Montana, decided she wanted to become a mental health and addiction counselor.
It would mean years of education – and borrowing money to pay for it.
President Joe Biden’s offer to cancel billions in student loan debt will erase the entire balance owed by about 20 million people, barring any legal challenges or bureaucratic holdups. Another 23 million, including McWilliams, will have as much as $20,000 of their debt erased.
Will your debt be forgiven? How do I get my student loans forgiven? Qualifying for Biden’s debt relief, explained.
But given McWilliams owes more than $129,000, even with Biden’s gesture, she faces decades of payments.
“It’s really hard to wrap my head around having that kind of debt burden,” McWilliams said. “It might as well be a million dollars. I don’t even know how to get at it.”
Loan forgiveness will affect nearly all 45 million people who still carry federal student debt. Those making more than $125,000 annually or more than $250,000 as part of a household don’t qualify. It also has no effect on the debt of people who borrowed from private lenders.
Biden’s maneuver has been labeled a handout to the wealthy and unfair to people who paid off their loans or don’t have degrees. McWilliams said given the size of her debt, she believes it will change her life very little.
For others the erasure will be transformative. Student loan borrowers from across the country, with different levels of education and in distinct stages of life, told USA TODAY the forgiveness will give them a chance to save for a down payment on a home, further their education, save money for their children, or just keep the roof they already have over their heads.
Several said they don’t understand why their degrees cost as much as they did, and nearly all said they felt overwhelmed and confused when they first borrowed. Some said they are advising their children to think twice about college if it requires taking out loans. For some, the effect of holding so much debt was putting off marriage to avoid burdening prospective partners.
Student loans can swell the actual cost of college. Monthly payments tend to be small and cover only a fraction of the principal while interest keeps adding to what borrowers owe. Payment plans based on borrowers’ income keep monthly bills low but often extend the life of the loan even further. In some cases, payments may touch only the interest on a loan, stretching out how long borrowers are on the hook.
Some borrowers already have experienced a form of student debt freedom, with loan payments paused for more than 2 1/2 years, but the amount they owe overall is unchanged. Debt forgiveness will actually wipe out chunks of deb.
Even billions in debt cancellation – though some suspect it might cost up to a $1 trillion – won’t address all the hurdles Americans face in paying for higher education. As part of the debt announcement, Biden pledged to increase federal spending on higher education so families can spend less themselves. And the administration also plans to call out schools that leave their graduates with the most debt.
These borrowers’ stories illustrate what lies ahead for current and future students.
‘You want us to be really educated’
To work as a mental health therapist in Montana, McWilliams said she needed a bachelor’s and master’s degree. She earned both from the University of Providence, a private Catholic institution in Great Fall, Montana, but in the process accumulated about $129,000 in federal student loan debt.
McWilliams also had borrowed money in her early 20s to attend college on and off, adding to her debt. Because she had little income at the time, she received federal Pell grants to help pay her tuition. Under Biden’s plan, that means $20,000 of her debt may be forgiven.
She doesn’t think it will change her life.
McWilliams said limited college options and degree requirements for certain jobs drove her debt higher. She would have preferred to attend a state university, where tuition can cost far less than at a private institutions, but none had the right combination of being nearby with the right program. She was vexed, too, by the master’s degree requirement to be a mental health counselor.
“You want us to be really educated if we’re going to muck around in your psyche,” McWilliams said. But she has found that working as a counselor doesn’t pay well enough to off set the cost of her degrees.
She said it’s likely she will be paying off the debt for at least another 10 years, but McWilliams hopes to benefit from the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. The federal program, distinct from Biden’s student debt plan, cancels the debt of those working in public service after a decade. She is waiting for her loan servicer to confirm how many payments she has left.
Do you work in public service? Here’s how to apply for student loan debt forgiveness
She said she wonders whether the federal government can really deliver the mass relief it promises.
McWilliams’ experience with debt shaped the guidance she gives her children. Her 22-year-old daughter considered college, but she would have had to borrow to do so. McWilliams has advised her to avoid debt, or wait until she’s entirely independent of her mother so she may qualify for more financial aid.
For now, McWilliams’ daughter delivers pizzas for Papa John’s.
“She works in menial labor, because that’s what you do when you don’t have an education,” McWilliams said.
Saving so her daughter has ‘something to stand on’
University of Missouri-Columbia alum and St. Louis resident Danielle Copeland, 35, said still doesn’t have the diploma she earned more than a decade after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in communications – a result of the debt she has owed on her student account balance to the school for years.
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Before her second year of undergraduate school, her mother became ill and could no longer help her pay for college in the same way, she said. Her mother pushed her to continue school, however, so to pay for classes, Copeland borrowed about $40,000 through a combination of federal loans and the university which left a negative balance on her student account until this year. She used the loans alongside the wages she earned from three jobs to pay for her education and living expenses.
In late August, Copeland, a motivational speaker and author, said she finished paying off the balance on her student account to Mizzou. She is finally set to receive her diploma, “a piece of paper I worked hard for,” she said. (A university spokesman confirmed it does hold onto diplomas if students carry a balance after graduation.) But the $20,953 she still owed in federal loans continued to hang over her.
That was until Biden announced his debt cancellation plan last month.
Now, Copeland – a budgeting maven who pays varying amounts on her loans each month – could have her outstanding student debt cut in half. She said she can see her five-year debt-free plan become a reality with this sort of help.
“My mom is 60 and not debt free,” she said. “I can think of owning a home now. I’m excited. I’m so excited.”
As the first person in her family to go to college and have student loan debt, she wants to help her daughter, now in middle school, save for her education so she doesn’t end up in the same dilemma.
“In five years, she’ll be 17, and I’m thinking of all the things I could do for her, and not have to work on paying back my loans. I want their generation to not have to do that. I want her to have something to stand on. … I just don’t want to tell her ‘No, we can’t do this because we can’t afford it.’
“Let’s save up for it instead of being $40k in debt,” Copeland said.
Tamiko Scian’s education spanned three universities, culminating in a master’s degree in communications at Howard University in Washington D.C.
Like many borrowers, Scian, 49, said she grew as a person because of her education, but the $80,000 she has owed for years fills her with anxiety. After graduating from Howard in 2002, Scian said she put her loans on an administrative hold known as forbearance, “trying to delay the inevitable.” The practice allows borrowers to skip payments for a time, but interest continues to add up.
“It just felt like a ball and chain and a weight on my shoulders to have this year after year,” Scian said. “It kind of deferred a lot of personal dreams, like being able to accelerate on retirement savings, getting married.”
Scian said she feared the debt would weigh on any relationship, and an ideal spouse would be someone who is debt-free. She has dated over the past two years, but wants to avoid fights with potential spouses over money.
Scian, who lives in Bowie, Maryland, said she expects to have $10,000 of her debt forgiven with Biden’s plan and hopes to erase the rest through the federal government’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. She works for the federal government in workforce management, running new hire orientation programs and overseeing travel expenses for employees. Eligibility for the program, which cuts debt for some borrowers, was expanded recently, but the review process can be lengthy.
Worrying about her debt and waiting to hear about loan forgiveness based on her work has heightened Scian’s anxiety. Even if she does qualify, she still faces years of payments.
Scian, though, has had enough. Her 50th birthday is Dec. 31 which also happens to be the end of the payment pause. If she has no clarity about her debt by then, she said she will borrow against her life insurance policy or use personal savings to wipe it out.
“I’ve heard that some people who are baby boomers are still carrying it,” Scian said. “That’s not going to be my story.”
The ‘big, first investment in my life’
For Matthew Baiza, the offer of debt relief makes it possible for him to think about moving out of his family’s home in San Antonio, Texas, or starting law school. The 26-year-old attended Stanford University and graduated in 2018. Though the elite institution offers generous financial aid packages, Baiza said he still had to borrow to get through school.
“My big first investment in my life was really my college education,” Baiza said. “This is a big deal for a lot of people. It’s going to help us further figure out what’s the next step.”
Baiza comes from a family of educators, so there was an expectation that he would earn a degree. He was thrilled to be accepted into a top-tier university that accepts only about 5% of applicants. But he quickly realized his peers came from much wealthier backgrounds than his own. He wanted to see more people from families like his attend college, leading him to a career in community organizing. Baiza is the Texas organizer of the youth advocacy group NextGen America, where he helps to motivate young voters.
The debt has influenced many of Baiza’s decisions. He said he chose to move in with his parents after college in part to help manage the loan payments that would kick in six months after graduation. He put on hold other goals, including saving for a home, to concentrate on the student debt.
Baiza graduated with a $15,000 student loan bill, and after paying since January 2019, he has whittled that to less than $10,000. He expects the rest to be erased under the president’s plan. That means he can think about saving for that down payment, or law school, which he put off to avoid adding to his debt.
The president’s plan, he said, will “make a difference for people pursuing the things that their parents and the generation before them did in our country.”
No parents, or ‘anyone to tell me what I was signing up for’
By the time Tulsa, Oklahoma, resident Theron Ogedengbe, 30, graduated with his master’s degree in social work from the University of Oklahoma, he said he had racked up about $71,000 in student loan debt. As a Pell grant recipient, he is eligible for having as much as $20,000 of that balance erased under Biden’s plan.
Ogedengbe, who grew up in foster care in Oklahoma and California, struggled with housing starting at 17, after he said one foster family threw him out and the next was no more welcoming. He said he spent the year living in a men’s shelter and a transitional living program for Tulsa youthFaced with aging out of the latter, he said he had a critical choice to make.
“Do I face homelessness and living on the streets, or move onto a college campus and get an education?” Ogedengbe said. “I took an education. That was safest.”
He said he lived off loans and the money he earned working four jobs. He called his college experience “magical,” and has no regrets. Looking back, however, he called federal loan providers “predatory,” especially for foster youth.
“I didn’t have any parental forces around me, or anyone to tell me what I was signing up for,” he said. Ogedengbe said he’s grateful for the $20,000 and a proposal from the Biden administration that would cap monthly payments, once they resume in January, to 5% of a borrower’s discretionary income.
But he said the administration could do more to help those who will still owe tens of thousands more.
“Some people won’t get (their debt forgiven), but they can pay for it without sacrificing their lives,” he said. “When I got my first bill, it took out $800 from my account and I couldn’t pay rent that month.” He put future payments on hold back then and now hopes more of his debt will be forgiven because he works for a nonprofit.
If not, Ogedengbesaid he will save more and rearrange his lifestyle to pay off the roughly $50,000 he still owes.
‘It’s just a dark cloud’
In the early ’80s, Lisa Blais, now 62, took some evening courses at Boston University. She never earned a degree.
Decades later, when her son told her he hadn’t received enough financial aid to start his first year of college, Blais wanted him to have an opportunity she didn’t. That’s one of the reasons she and her husband took out a Parent PLUS loan to help cover his costs at DeVry University in 2008.
Blais, of Boylston, Massachusetts, said at first, she and her husband were able to make their payments. Then he became ill and went on disability. Earnings from her job as a technology planner – she helps companies stock the technology they need – were the family’s only income.
That made paying back the loan difficult. She said her loan servicer, Navient, guided her toward forbearance but didn’t offer advice about other federal programs meant to make paying debt more accessible. Forbearance meant she could delay payments, but what she owed ultimately kept growing thanks to interest
Navient has come under fire for steering borrowers toward forbearance instead of other options, and settled with the 39 attorneys general over the practice. That helped Blais, but she’s still on the hook for the remaining $12,000.
The federal government wiped out the debt owed by some DeVry students, because the for-profit college made misleading statements to students about their job prospects after attending. Blais’ son earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science, but she said that hasn’t translated to long-term employment. Blais’ loan hasn’t been included in action specific to DeVry, but the new Biden relief plan does and should wipe out $10,000 of what she owes.
The erasure comes as Blais’ anxiety about the end of the freeze on payments had been growing. The pause was scheduled to end Aug. 31, and she worried about ending up in court or having her wages garnished if she couldn’t pay down the debt.
“It’s just a dark cloud owing something you know you can’t pay,” Blais said. “I am 62 years old and I am the breadwinner, and this isn’t the only bill we have. We still need to survive and eat and, you know, have a roof over our heads.
“Less over my head is just so much better.”
A paycheck for ‘something that is not loans’
Hannah Purnell, 25, moved into in a family’s basement so she could save money to make bigger payments on her student loans during the payment pause. The 25-year-old economic analyst graduated with an economics degree from Pennsylvania State University in 2018 with about $93,600 in student loan debt.
It was a daunting figure, a combination of what she owed and what her parents borrowed on her behalf, but she was determined to pay it all off. Even before the pandemic, Purnell, who lives in the Philadelphia suburbs, planned to pay down her debt aggressively to avoid accumulating interest. But during the payment pause, interest rates on student loans were set at zero percent, presenting Purnell an opportunity to pay down her debt, fast.
“I’m endlessly grateful to have been able to pay them mostly off while in interest forbearance,” Purnell said. “It saved me likely over $10,000 in interest alone, given in early 2020 I was paying about $500 to interest each month.”
So she gave up eating out and traveling – relatively easy to do thanks to pandemic restrictions – to steer her money to her loan payments. She scoured Craigslist for cheap housing, leading her to the basement apartment where she lived during the height of pandemic. Purnell has since moved out, but still lives with roommates.
Purnell said she knows not everyone will want or be able to live in a basement so they can pay down their student loan debt. But for her, cost-cutting measures meant that by May she had slashed what she owed to about $10,000. She opted to stop her payments then, in case Biden announced the widespread forgiveness he pledged on the campaign trail.
She has also allowed herself to “spend my paycheck on something that is not loans.” She traveled to Europe in July. After living with roommates for years she’s looking forward to finding a space to call her own.
While she said she is grateful for the relief, Purnell said, “obviously, the whole system of education is still kind of messed up in how it’s so expensive.”