Social media platforms often turn into a torrent of hot-takes when politicians announce new policy proposals. Such was the case after Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) released a sweeping education plan Monday, becoming the first Democratic presidential contender to do so. But many of the posts in response, even by pundits, were less political and more personal. And they broached a typically private topic: money.
Warren’s plan would make tuition to two- and four-year public colleges free; it would also create a $50 billion fund to aid historically black colleges, which have long been underfunded. The most buzzed-about aspect involves student loan debt forgiveness: The plan would eliminate up to $50,000 in student debt for households that make less than $100,000 a year, affecting an estimated 42 million Americans.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that debt forgiveness gained traction, especially among millennials. From 2002 to 2012, the average loan debt per full-time student increased by almost 60 percent, according to the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization. Student loan debt in 2019 is the highest ever at $1.5 trillion, and an estimated 70 percent of U.S. college students graduate with debt.
What’s more, student loan debt disproportionately burdens women. Women hold about two-thirds of the student loan debt in the United States, according to a 2018 report from the American Association of University Women. A big factor is the pay gap: Women who hold college degrees make an estimated 26 percent less than their male counterparts, so they pay off their loans more slowly, according to the AAUW.
Nicole Smith, a research professor and chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said Warren’s proposal would affect women “in a very positive way.”
Smith believes the plan is feasible, given that Warren has laid out how she would pay for it: It would cost about $1.25 trillion over 10 years, and much of the money would come from a tax on the ultra-rich. Smith cites other countries — France, Sweden, Germany — as employing similar education policies and being successful. If she had to weigh in on it, Smith says, she’d “give it a green light.”
Supporters of the plan say that Warren’s policy would particularly benefit communities of color and improve the racial wealth gap. Critics, meanwhile, argue that Americans who hold a degree have greater earning potential than those who don’t — that it’s unfair to make lower-earning Americans financially support the education of higher earners.
What’s undeniable, Smith says, is that when we consider student loan debt, “we really are talking about a tremendous amount of burden on the average American.”
We asked women who are struggling to pay off student loans about their financial burdens, and how their lives would change if that debt were erased.
Note: Some women asked to use their first names only to discuss their finances. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
Her debt burden: “I did four years of college and immediately went to grad school for a year to get my masters in accounting. I got a decent amount of financial aid, because my mom was a single mother and didn’t make much. I left grad school in 2015 with just about $90,000 of student loan debt (that’s principal only). Four years later, I have that down to just under $60,000. And that’s only because I received two $6,000 refundable credits from my state. I currently cannot afford to move out on my own (I’m still at home with my mom). I actually sat with the bank to see what I could afford for a mortgage, and it was $100,000 (I’m in New England, where $100,000 will buy you basically nothing).”
Without debt, here’s what she’d do: “I could be so much better off without these loans hanging over my head. They cripple my finances. I use almost one whole paycheck to make student loan payments. After that, there’s still rent, insurance, gas, etc. And in response to people complaining, ‘Well, I had to suffer and pay my debt so everyone else should have to, too’ — I’d be incredibly happy for the next generation to not have to struggle the way I have. I would never want this for my children or even the younger kids in my family.”
Her debt burden: “Even with multiple scholarships, family assistance and work-study opportunities, my significant student loan debts have been hanging over my head even prior to college. My debt is always in the back of my mind — and thanks to interest, ever-growing. It’s hard to keep up with, especially living somewhere like Washington, D.C.”
Without debt, here’s what she’d do: “Loan forgiveness would allow me to put that significant chunk of money each month toward building my emergency savings and building a retirement fund.”
Her debt burden: “I’m the main provider for my family. It’s currently such a weight on me.”
Without debt, here’s what she’d do: “If my student debt were eliminated, I’d be able to actually start saving for retirement and help my daughters get through school with zero debt.”
Her debt burden: “I dropped out of medical school six years ago, and the debt has been ballooning ever since. I’ve got around $120,000 in debt from a degree I didn’t complete. About 30 percent of it is interest. I’d like to be able to buy a home, and should be able to just fine on my salary, but I can’t imagine taking on a mortgage with six figures of debt hanging over my head. I’d like to have a partner someday soon, but can’t imagine burdening them with my debt — not to mention that, depending on their salary, my monthly payments could skyrocket if I got married. I feel like I’m more or less living my life in limbo. Without that debt, I could so easily have the life my parents had, if not better.”
Without debt, here’s what she would do: “The first thing I would do without debt is buy a home. I’d also like to get more aggressive with my investments. Debt doesn’t just affect the debtors, it affects their family, friends and current or potential partners. I think wiping out student loan debt would lead to a pretty drastic, and overwhelmingly positive, change in our economy.”
Her debt burden: “There’s uncertainty about working in an industry that I’m passionate about but doesn’t pay well. I’ve considered dropping passion to chase the money.”
Without debt, here’s what she’d do: “Not only would it allow me to reallocate the money to my long-term financial goals, but in the short-term, it would allow me to move out of my parents’ house without living paycheck to paycheck.”
Her debt burden: “I live in the Washington, D.C., area, and make a pretty high salary ($93,000), so I’ve been unable to claim several thousands of student loan interest repaid via taxes, because my salary is too high. I’ve spent so many years fighting a losing battle against 6.8 percent interest.”
Without debt, here’s what she’d do: “Paying off my student loan debt would save me $900 a month. That’s real money for savings and investment, the occasional fancy dinner, paying down other debts, traveling to see my family and generally to stop living paycheck to paycheck.”
Her debt burden: “I’m going to be paying $500-plus a month for the next 25-plus years. I studied acting and now I live full-time in New York City. I’m a waitress and restaurant manager and have to work 40-plus hours a week to pay my rent, my bills, food and still maintain a social life. This leaves little to no time to work on my craft, audition, go to the gym, take classes and actually do what I’m spending so much money to do. I am far from the only one that graduated from my school who feels this way.”
Without debt, here’s what she’d do: “If I got to keep more of the money I work for, I could actually do more of what I spent my money on in the first place.”
Her debt burden: “I am currently on an income-based payment plan. My monthly payment is over $1,200, but due to having no income after leaving a job that was physically and emotionally destructive, I have a $0 payment. I still try to pay something monthly, but it’s like trying to bail water from the ocean with a bucket. The interest alone has caused my total debt to more than triple. The amount of stress this has caused over the years is debilitating. I am drowning, and if anything happens to me, my husband and children may have to shoulder it.”
Without debt, here’s what she would do: “If I didn’t have any of this debt looming, I would feel free to build my portrait business, move closer to my family and plan for retirement. As it is, I will have to work until I die to pay off my loans.”