- Maria, 48, has $US430,000 ($AU614,110) in student debt from advanced degrees she regrets pursuing.
- She had a goal to become a full-time university professor and believed a PhD would get her there.
- But a layoff and medical bills for her daughter’s cancer treatment caused her debt load to surge.
Maria had a goal to teach at a university full-time. Today, she “absolutely” regrets pursuing that goal.
While Maria’s undergraduate education, which she completed in 2001, was funded through scholarships and Pell grants, she knew more advanced degrees would give her a leg up in university teaching — especially as a woman in the industry. So she pursued a master’s degree and a PhD, the latter of which took seven years to complete.
It was not a decision she took lightly, and at the time she believed the commitment would be worth it. Maria, who requested her last name be withheld for privacy reasons, extensively researched the program, and its statistics for employment post-graduation looked promising. However, she was unable to land a full-time university job after graduation in 2014 and found herself unable to afford her student-loan payments.
Now, at 48 years old, Maria’s student-loan balance is $US430,000 ($AU614,110) — all from her advanced degrees, per documents reviewed by Insider.
“I’ll probably be paying it off for the rest of my life,” she told Insider. “I hate to say it this way, and it’s morbid, but I’ll probably die still owing student loans.”
It’s been no easy road for Maria since she attained her degrees. At the end of 2015, Maria lost her first job in human resources and could not make payments on her student debt. In 2018, her daughter was diagnosed with Leukemia, and a large portion of her income went to that medical treatment, causing her to defer her loans while interest on them continued to grow.
As a full-time human resources representative and part-time adjunct professor in Michigan, Maria now makes a five-figure salary while supporting her 15-year-old daughter on her own, with very minimal child support from the father. She doesn’t see a future that doesn’t include student debt.
“It’s like I’m in a hole,” Maria said. “I feel like I’m in a hole that I’m never going to get out of.”
‘My daughter’s medical bills are much more important to me’
If Maria could have a do-over, she would never have gotten her PhD. Although she said she prepared herself as best as she could for the financial toll it would take, there was no way she could have anticipated a layoff or the medical bills for her daughter.
Of her total student-debt load, more than $US70,000 ($AU99,971) is interest that accumulated while her student-loan payments were on hold, during which she cashed out her 401k and lived on unemployment benefits.
“Obviously, paying my daughter’s medical bills are much more important to me,” Maria said, but she wishes her student-loan company had given her more assistance to control her growing debt load.
Maria even filed for bankruptcy in 2018, but despite the extreme financial hardship she was under, she was not successful in discharging her loans.
Since she is an adjunct professor, Maria does not work enough hours to qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, which forgives student debt for public servants, like teachers, after ten years of qualifying payments. She has worked in HR for a nonprofit — which qualifies for the program — for nearly a decade, but her $US0 ($AU0) payments in 2015 while she was unemployed did not count toward her PSLF progress even though Federal Student Aid wrote on its website that they should qualify.
A student aid representative told Maria they just have to update her payment progress to include the time she was making $US0 ($AU0) payments, but they have yet to do so and she is looking at seven more years of repayment that she’s not sure she can afford to get full loan forgiveness.
‘I’m hoping that they completely revamp the student-loan program’
The Education Department recently announced reforms to PSLF, which included going back over denied applications and payments to the program. So there’s a chance that Maria may earn a quicker route to loan forgiveness. But with her current financial outlook, she’s not confident she can complete the program and wants President Joe Biden to do more to help millions of borrowers with debt burdens.
“I’m hoping that they completely revamp the student-loan program,” Maria said.
As Insider has previously reported, that overhaul may have already started. Along with the PSLF reforms, Biden has cancelled student debt for targeted groups of borrowers — including those defrauded by for-profit schools and people with disabilities, acting on his campaign promise of fixing broken loan forgiveness programs.
But pressure continues to build on the president to cancel student debt for every American. Maria would be grateful, not only for her own benefit, but to ensure that other young people don’t fall into the same debt trap that she did.
“Most people that get these student loans are still young and don’t understand the true impact of it,” Maria said. “So I just feel like there’s a lot of overselling in the upfront that puts people in debt like this.”
Do you have a story to share about student debt? Reach out to Ayelet Sheffey at [email protected]