Life & Debt

I’m never paying my student loans back. Here’s why.

After racking up more than $100,000 in debt, thanks to rapidly compounding interest, this writer has had enough

“You can’t turn down Northwestern for journalism. The rest will work itself out.”

I distinctly remember where I was on five separate occasions when I heard that exact advice about attending graduate school. It was 2008 and I’d just graduated from college into a world that was vastly different from the one I was told to expect on the other side of a degree. The entire financial infrastructure of the United States had collapsed. The industry I’d always wanted to work in, journalism, was hemorrhaging jobs. 

Nobody was hiring and I didn’t know what to do with my life. So I figured I’d wait out the financial collapse in grad school. I knew I’d have to take tens of thousands of dollars in loans to attend. It was a cost I thought I was willing to bear. I was trying to find a path to the career I wanted. I’d been experiencing dead ends and economic despair. Everyone around me said the education would be worth it. I signed a promissory note that explained my financial obligation when I finished school. I saw that my interest rate would be about 7 or 8%. I took on student loans. I was 22. All told, I graduated from Northwestern with a master’s degree and about $70,000 in student loan debt. Now, I have a journalism job and — thanks to a combination of payments, high interest loans, and some deferments — I owe a little more than $100,000.

I’ll never live down my decision. And I’ll likely never pay those loans back.

Student loans are a bear trap whose impact will devastate millions of Americans who were trying to get an education. And now, after a three-year moratorium on payments, the federal government is poised to restart them, forcing people to pay hundreds of dollars or more every month. The Oct. 1 deadline to start paying back student loans hovered over our heads since the moratorium was begun as a means of relief during the coronavirus pandemic. And it’s a date that has kept me up at night for months.

The three-year moratorium has felt like freedom — freedom from debt, freedom from the daily calls I was getting telling me I’d default on my credit, freedom from knowing I’ll be hamstrung by a debt I’ll never actually be able to pay off. 

U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts has been fighting for student loan relief. Pressley defaulted on her own student loans and knows the struggle intimately. She hopes for a solution, but understands how crippling student loan debt can be.

“Borrowers feel that they’re falling off of a financial cliff,” she told Andscape. “There is so much panic. I hear it across generations.”

It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never had student loan debt what it’s like to survive. For the past 15 years, I’ve been faced with a bill that I often could not pay. And when I could pay some of it, the amount would be so inconsequential that it wouldn’t stop interest from accruing. I’ve been on the phone and begged collectors plenty of times to just let me pay what I could every month, only for them to tell me that it wouldn’t stop me from going into default unless I paid the entire monthly balance. One time, one woman even said she was praying for me. Most just suggested deferment — a way to put off loan payments while interest accrued — as a temporary solution that allowed me to keep my lights on.

U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley speaks as student loan borrowers and advocates gather for the a rally to cancel student loan debt on Feb. 28 in Washington.

Jemal Countess/Getty Images

“This nearly $2 trillion [student loan] crisis is an economic justice issue,” Pressley said. “It’s a gender justice issue, in that two-thirds of this debt are disproportionately on the shoulders of women and disproportionately on the shoulders of Black women and Black borrowers.”

Though my balance continued to climb, loan deferments kept me afloat — and I’d take them again. I couldn’t have started my family without those deferments. I chose to let the $500 in unpaid interest accrue each month when I needed money for day care for my son, or to purchase and get settled into a new home. I made that choice. Just like I made the choice to take on the loans in the first place. Like myself, many borrowers used the three-year repayment pause to set their lives up as well — buying homes, starting families, and even putting aside some money for retirement. Yes, they could have paid down loans while the interest was accruing. But many didn’t.

“That money is better spent in your pocket,” said Braxton Brewington, press secretary for the Debt Collective, a debtors union working to cancel personal debts, including medical bills and student loans. “It is better for you to make your rent at the end of the month or to pay for your insulin, or pay for your kids to have clothes and food than for that money to go to the Department of Education, which is really just throwing cash in the trash.”

The problem, though, is that these aren’t choices people should have to make. Student loans shouldn’t put me in a position to choose between the American dream and tossing money into a pit that gobbles up hundreds of dollars a month and spits out even more debt.

But therein lies the problem at the heart of the student loan crisis — and my own personal hell of paying off these debts. Student loans are about who has access to the American dream and who keeps running into obstacles. As a Black man in America, my access to generational wealth is nonexistent. So education by any means possible is often the only pathway to the type of income we need to buy homes and build families. And for far too many of us, that means taking on student loans — and more loans than our white peers.

“As Black folk, we have been locked out of every major federal relief program in this country,” Pressley said. “Even if there have been some gains made by Black folks — it might be earning more income — but we don’t have the wealth. If you did not benefit from the Homestead Act and the GI Bill, if your families are still targeted by redlining, if Black home ownership is the lowest it’s been in six decades, if you’re fortunate enough to even purchase a home, it’s likely it hasn’t even been appraised according to its accurate value to even withdraw the equity to use that for higher education.”

Black borrowers carry an average of $25,000 more in student loan debt than their white counterparts. I have white friends who attended the same schools I did, took on the same amount of debt I took on, and were able to pay them off, thanks to inheritances and the other spoils of white privilege. I have white peers who earn the same amount that I do, but live wholly different lives because they have had their burdensome student loans paid off — or never had to deal with them in the first place.

That’s why the current student loan forgiveness proposals never quite sat right with me. President Joe Biden’s plan, for instance, put financial caps on who could receive financial relief. People filing taxes individually must have an income below $125,000. Married couples must have had an income less than $250,000. Biden’s rationale has revolved around the notion that those in Ivy League schools end up having careers that allow for hundreds of dollars in debt payments a month. And in the macro sense that may be the case. But Biden — and most of the plans for canceling only a portion of student loan debt — ignores the socioeconomic positions Black folks live with. On average, white households make $25,000 more per year than Black households at any educational level beyond a bachelor’s degree. That’s a year’s worth of student loan payments. And that doesn’t account for money that gets passed down from generations.

“You have people who are just above that $125,000 threshold who desperately need relief,” Brewington said. “There’s this belief that these Black folks have high income and therefore are wealthy. And that’s not true. The more student debt you cancel, the more equitable it is for Black Americans, in terms of people’s income thresholds and the amount of relief that you’re giving.”

A Black person’s $150,000 a year is different from a white person’s. So often, Black people who make six figures are the only people in their families earning that sort of income. Because of this, they become breadwinners for more than just themselves. They may pay their dad’s medical bills, help pay for a cousin’s education, or take in a niece. They have to pull themselves out of other debts, credit card or otherwise. And they generally have to face financial and personal obstacles that their white counterparts simply do not. So it’s unfair to use a generic income requirement that doesn’t take these racial differences into account. Because no matter our incomes, the hundreds of thousands of dollars we owe in student loans, will always impact Black folks at a worse rate than our white counterparts.

“Most of my friends are like me, taking care of multiple family members and many more taking care of aging parents and raising young kids,” Pressley said. “That was a part of our original fight to begin with, understanding that disparity. If Black women are carrying the most debt, but they’re making six figures, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a need for relief.” If there ever was a policy that called for race-based solutions, it’s student loans.

If I pay off my student loans, the $80,000 I spent for school would turn into more than $200,000 in payments over the course of the loan’s life due to the almost 8% interest I have to pay. When I was 22 in 2008 and trying to decide on my future, that number seemed incomprehensible to me and every person who told me to run, not walk, to one of the best journalism schools in the country to secure my future. Because they knew what I knew: I needed every advantage I could get to enter into a white-dominated industry. It’s the conundrum Black folks face in their pursuit of their best lives. And like any attempt to advance in America, that pursuit comes with a tax that feels like a vice grip.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.