Lawyers, scientists, healthcare pros struggle to pay off student loans

Lawyers, scientists, healthcare pros struggle to pay off student loans
Copyright 2019 CNN
Ashley Payne says she can't afford to live on her own or replace her faulty car.

You’ve might have heard the statistic. As many as 45 million Americans have student loan debt — amounting to about $1.49 trillion total.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed eliminating the student loan debts of tens of millions of Americans, which her campaign says would be financed by a proposed wealth tax. She’s been promoting her plan by encouraging people to share their experiences on Twitter with the hashtag #CancelMyDebt.

CNN reached out to some of these people, and they all agreed on one thing. They’re tired of others telling them they should have made better decisions, because they think the current system has set them up to fail. Here’s what they said:

Prestigious schools were supposed to open doors

Ashley Payne was raised by a single mother and was the first person in her household to go to college.

She enrolled in Fisk University, a private, historically black university in Nashville. The school initially gave her a generous financial aid package: She qualified for work study, a Pell Grant and received additional scholarships. To cover the gaps, she took out federal loans from the Department of Education.

The next year, Payne said she was told her mother made too much money to qualify for the Pell Grant. She lost that funding and her work study job. She applied for more scholarships and received two, but it still wasn’t enough. She had to take out more loans.

By her senior year, Payne said she had reached her borrowing limit from the Department of Education and had to take out a private loan. She said she graduated college with about $50,000 in debt.

Payne wanted to become a prosecutor, so she applied to law school and was accepted at Emory University, a top-ranked program. She said she got a small scholarship, but nowhere near the full cost of tuition, so she had to take out even more loans. Sure, it was expensive, but an impressive name was supposed to open doors.

“When you are a young black person in this country and you’re raised by a single mom, going to college is an extreme accomplishment,” Payne said. “What makes it more prestigious is if you can go to the best school that’s available to you.”

Now Payne said she has about $330,000 in debt. Finding sustainable, full-time work has been difficult, and because she wants to go into public service, the jobs don’t pay well. Also, having to make monthly payments, she can’t afford to live on her own or replace her faulty car.

She said she did everything she was supposed to do

Megan Lasure is an epidemiologist working on antibiotic resistance. It’s important work, she said, but to get the education required for the job, she had to take on a significant amount of debt. She said she has about $75,000 in loans, most of which are from her master of public health degree.

Lasure said she felt like she did everything she was supposed to do.

She got both her undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a public university where she qualified for in-state tuition. She got a scholarship that covered most of her tuition for her first undergraduate year, and to cover everything else, she only took out federal loans.

But she said it was hard to keep up with the rising costs of tuition.

“My parents used to be able to work a summer job and pay for their college,” Lasure said. “Before I went to my freshman year, I worked in a factory, ‘third shift,’ making catalytic converters from the day I graduated high school to the day I went to college. I didn’t even make enough to cover my room and board for my freshman year.”

The average salary for an epidemiologist in Madison, Wisconsin, is about $61,000, according to Glassdoor, and Lasure said she’s paying about $500 a month toward her student loans. She said that she and her husband wish they could use the money they are putting toward their loans to pay off their mortgage, or to pay for child care for their first baby, due in August.

He said he was taught to value education

Bryan Harnsberger said his family always encouraged as much education as possible.

“Growing up, my parents always instilled in me that no matter what you want to do, make sure you’re the most educated person,” he said.

Then his best friend died a year after Harnsberger graduated college. The grief that he and others went through made him realize he wanted to be a clinical psychologist.

Harnsberger enrolled at William James College in Newton, Massachusetts, to pursue a doctorate. Luckily, he had no debt from his undergraduate degree because his grandfather had arranged to pay for it in his will.

He would have to take out loans for his doctorate, but he said the college told him that its students generally had a low default rate and were able to pay back their loans. But he said before he knew it, he was spending about $75,000 a year for tuition and cost of living.

Harnsberger said he wasn’t living extravagantly. He took on research assistant jobs, was a teaching assistant and did what he could to keep costs down. But he took two extra years to complete his dissertation, which only added to the mountain of debt. He said he owes more than $350,000.

Now he’s a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating adolescents and college-age students — exactly what he wanted to do. Harnsberger said he makes about $65,000 to $75,000 a year, but that his loan payments are about $900 to $1,500 a month. The debt he’s carrying makes him feel toxic, he said.

“I have no way to remedy all this, and all I’m going to do is end up incurring more and more and more debt,” he said. “How am I supposed to provide for our children?”

She thought student loan debt was normal

Amber Deel said she has around $100,000 in student loan debt, and it’s a burden that has put her future on standstill.

Deel was raised by her grandmother in the small southwest Virginia town of Clintwood, and money was often tight. There weren’t a lot of opportunities in the area, but Deel made good grades and scored well on the SAT.

When it came time to apply to college, she said her guidance counselors recommended she attend a private college rather than take the full ride that the University of Virginia’s College at Wise offered her. Taking out student loans was considered normal, and she figured eventually she’d be able to find a job that would allow her to pay them off.

“That’s what you had to do to get out of poverty. That’s what you had to do to get out of the region and find a good job and have a good life,” Deel said she was told.

She said no one mentioned the state of the economy and the job market at the time.

Deel was the first person in her family to go to college, so she took the advice and enrolled at Tusculum University, a private university in Greenville, Tennessee. She ended up finishing her degree online at Southern New Hampshire University.

She wanted to be a college history professor, but there weren’t jobs available in that field. Eventually, Deel said, it stopped making sense to pursue her passion. She changed course and enrolled in a master’s program for marketing and communications — which meant she had to take on even more debt.

Now she works at a health insurance company on the customer service line. It pays the bills, but just barely, she said. She and her husband can’t even begin to think about having kids or buying a house.

“My whole future’s screwed up because I have to take whatever job I can find instead of finding one that I actually want to pursue,” she said.

Knowing what she does now, Deel said she would have done things differently. But she said the problem isn’t that she didn’t know enough about the system.

“It’s not just about educating yourself on student loans and how they work,” Deel said. “I think it’s about creating a system that actually works for students and people in poverty. We’re so easily preyed on.”