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Published: Jun 17, 2019 6 min read
Phil Nolan for Money

I have $235,000 of student debt. The first $120,000 came with a bachelor’s degree from my state school. Another $70,000 or so came with my master’s degree. The remainder is accrued interest.

The suggested minimum monthly payment on my private debt alone is approximately $1,200. For reference: that’s nearly rent for the 600-square-foot apartment where I live with my partner in New Jersey.

Without income driven repayment, the minimum payment amount for my federal student debt would be around $1,000.

I would have to begin devoting half of my income to debt payment if I cared to pay it off by 2042. I can’t do that because I make just under $4,000 per month. And that income is a fairly new development in my life. Why would I choose to pay down my debt if it meant I wouldn’t be able to afford basic living expenses?

Short of winning the lottery, there’s no way I could ever afford to pay off my debt. And though I have a higher debt burden than most, I’m certainly not alone.

One in four American adults has student debt. And that amount will grow over the coming years. Seven in 10 college graduates are now graduating with student debt, with the greatest burden falling on people of color, low-income borrowers, and women.

Meanwhile more and more people can’t make their minimum payments.

The price of a college education has quadrupled since the 1980s while wages haven't budged and rents went up by 50 percent. No wonder nearly 5 million American are in default on their student loans. At this rate, 40 percent of borrowers are expected to be in default by 2023.

I’m privileged to have made it through the first few years of repayment. With a financial hardship agreement with Sallie Mae, my parents – cosigners on my private loans – pay $600 per month to keep default at bay from our family and allow me to live a decent life. And through an income driven repayment plan (IDR) with Navient, I’ve been paying less than $50 per month on my public loans, though that could change as my income changes.

My parents cosigned my loans because we’re first-generation immigrants. Moving to the U.S. was about giving me a chance to live my best life. College was a critical component and we couldn’t afford it any other way. The only reason they can afford those $600 monthly payments now is because they paid off their 30-year mortgage just a few years ago.

My parents are in their 60s and 70s and will live the rest of their lives with my student debt. Likely so will I. Again – we won’t be alone.

Three million Americans over the age of 60 are paying off student debt. Approximately 40,000 of them are having Social Security or other government payments garnished.

College was supposed to be about getting ahead in life. But it’s become a driver of inequality.

It does not have to be this way.

Some economists say that forgiving student debt would boost GDP by $100 billion per year for ten years and add several million jobs to the economy. It would unlock the capacity of 44 million Americans to buy homes, launch small businesses, and retire with dignity.

Congress could pay for it by repealing the $1.5 trillion tax cut it passed in 2017. Primarily benefiting the wealthy and corporations, even Goldman Sachs says that whatever economic boost the tax cut brought with it has passed.

And to keep future generations from suffering under the burden of student debt, Congress could make public colleges, universities, and trade schools in the United States free.

The federal government already spends $80 billion per year on grants and tax breaks for students pursuing higher education. It spends another $100 billion every year issuing new student loans.

That’s $180 billion the U.S. could stop spending on a broken system if it decided to invest it in a new one. Coincidently, that amount is more than enough to cover the cost of that new system.

Tuition at public institutions of higher education totals $63 billion. Add cost of living and that number reaches $127 billion. With the remaining $53 billion, the U.S. can invest in expanding access to higher education with job training and small business accelerators.

Until then, I’m focused on keeping the cost of servicing my debt low while I do other things a 29-year-old should be doing, like saving for an emergency fund or a down payment on a house.

I’m spending my money in a way that invests in my future. Can the country do the same?

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