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"I can't help but wonder what
my life would be like without student loans."

– Mike Bertrand, Washington, $60,000 - 100,000 in debt

A PBS NewsHour special report   |   May 31, 2012

The Faces of Student-Loan Debt

Children with poster and flag

By Elizabeth Shell

In preparation for our in-depth look at the state of college loans, we asked Americans to share how the $1 trillion student debt situation affects them. We received an overwhelming number of responses to our Public Insight Network request, some of which are below (Want to help inform our reporting? Become a PIN source. )

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    Mike Bertrand, Washington

    Debt Amount:
    $60,000 - 100,000

    active inactive
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    Anne Brandau, Maryland

    Debt Amount:
    $0

    active inactive
  • Second story

    Aaron Hoffman, Maine

    Debt Amount:
    Over $200,000

    active inactive
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    Ali Dierrks, Indiana

    Debt Amount:
    $100,000 - $200,000

    active inactive
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    Jacob Kemer, Massachusetts

    Debt Amount:
    $100,000 - $200,000

    active inactive
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    Laura Petruska, Florida

    Debt Amount:
    $0

    active inactive
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    Benjamin Little, Vermont

    Debt Amount:
    $100,000 - $200,000

    active inactive

We Pay $1,060 a month for our loans.

I can't help but wonder what my life would be like without student loans. My spouse and I have jobs that do not really require college educations, so we always wonder if we are really better off as a result of going to college. Realizing that the undergraduate degree has become the new high school diploma has given us little solace.

We pay $1,060 a month for our loans. That amount of money can pay our rent and over half of our monthly grocery bill. Dwelling on this, I've come to realize while my wife and I do not make much money, without our debt we could live very comfortably on the $12.50 and $16.50 an hour we make. Saving for a house would be a possibility. So would starting a modest vacation fund, or starting a retirement plan.

If I could sum up the feeling , we'd have more security and flexibility without our debt. More peace of mind.

Advice for those considering taking out student loans:

Go out and try to live and work without a college diploma for a year or two. This is important because you will hopefully discover what you want to do with your life amidst the toil of your labor, should you find it unsatisfactory or you could have the ambition, network and luck to find what you want before college, and if so get a degree to enhance your skills in that profession.

And really examine the idea of student loans. I never gave them a single thought as I assumed a college degree would mean a salary of at least $35,000, which would make them just an afterthought. What if you can't find work after college? What if you can only obtain minimum-wage jobs? What if you aren't 100 percent committed to your field of study or lose interest? Are you going to college solely because that is what is expected of us after graduation?

Your own ignorance can be a costly thing.

My husband and I have never even taken a vacation together and we have to decide whether or not we can afford to buy milk.

I sent in my last student loan payment at the very beginning of May 2012.

I have had to be frugal since graduating college and have made paying my loans back a priority since my graduation in 2008. I was initially due to have over $20,000 in the student loans. I chose to penny-pinch and have all of my student loans (along with about $10,000 that my husband owed) entirely paid off exactly four years later. My husband and I have never even taken a vacation together and we have to decide whether or not we can afford to buy milk. We rarely get to see our families because we usually can't afford to make the trip. I can't remember the last time we even bought new clothes for ourselves. We live as inexpensively as possible, but the ability to be free of this debt and open up our financial options for the future has been entirely worth the few years of struggle.

Advice for those considering taking out student loans:

It's important to prioritize your spending habits, evaluate your needs versus your wants, and be aware of your entire financial situation. Our main reason for choosing to be more frugal than average really stemmed from not wanting to pay so much extra money in interest and we also did not want to be shackled to this debt for an extended period of time. My original repayment plan assumed that it would take me over 10 years to pay back my student loans! We have our entire lives ahead of us, and we owe our current position to the education we received, a few short years of sacrifice certainly seemed worth it.

You do not need a high-paying job, an Ivy League school on your resume, or an engineering degree to pay off student-loan debt. You have to make good decisions and be responsible.

I am lucky because of my career choice.

I am in my last year of medical school. As I am sure you are well aware, this is a very expensive endeavor, and to date, I have borrowed about $280,000. While I will not begin paying back my loans until July of 2012, I can say that they have affected my entire career plan. I intend to pursue training in primary care medicine, but in order to do that and afford my loans, I have had to carefully structure my debt with the government and will have to restrict my employers for the next decade to qualify for "public-service" assistance. I am lucky because of my career choice. But there should be public service loan forgiveness programs for everyone, regardless of field.

I am already accruing several thousands of dollars per year in interest that is just being capitalized at this point. I can barely even conceive of how enormous the debt it.

Advice for those considering taking out student loans:

If you have a concrete plan for a career that will generate money medicine, law, maybe business, engineering, etc. then go for it. If you don't, then I would hesitate to recommend pulling out a lot of student loans. But I also think that people should follow their passions, and while the arts and humanities may not generate much in terms of salaries, they are exceptionally important aspects of humanity.

Please, PLEASE understand this is not free money.

I became a financial aid advisor specifically to help people avoid the kind of debt load I'm dealing with. I actively discourage people from things I would have been fine with before, like taking out the maximum amount possible. Sometimes, to give myself more street cred, I share my own story. A lot of my students are nontraditional, older, coming back to school after a career that didn’t work they think I couldn’t possibly understand the ramifications of student loan debt. With my salary of $22,800, I pay $62 a month using the income-based repayment plan. My total debt is $168,000, so that’s not going to get me anywhere. But it keeps me in the black.

Advice for those considering taking out student loans:

Please, PLEASE understand this is not free money. Don't take the maximum amount available just because it's there.

Down the road, please don't ever just not pay. Call your lender if you don't have the money to make payments. Default is an ugly thing.

Loans are not paid off by some future version of yourself that will be making good money ...

I try not to think of my debt in my daily life, other than I know I spend more on loans than on rent. After being laid off, one of my first actions was to file for a forbearance because there is no possibility to pay those loans on unemployment or any low-paying jobs. I have been lucky enough to be employed in a position where I could afford those bills.

Advice for those considering taking out student loans:

Loans are not paid off by some future version of yourself that will be making good money at a job you love, so be careful what you borrow for, how much you borrow and who you borrow from. Ask any questions you have, no matter how stupid you think you sound asking them.

An individual must be responsible for their actions.

I'm 62 and had a student loan in 1968. My rate was over 6 percent and I was grateful for it. Young people, regardless of age should be aware of rates of interest, potential of earning power and the advantage of state schools.

I worked 40 hours a week and got through college in four years and paid off my loan in about six. It was the education that was important and I would have done anything to get that diploma. I then went to the University of Houston for two master's degrees. I was working full time and yet there were times I was unable to pay for a semester. So I took that semester off, saved up and then went the following semester. No debt, no loans, just common sense and a strong will to get that education.

As far as I'm concerned if you cannot pay off your loan, you should never have the opportunity to buy a house, never be able to get a loan on a car and the government should never be expected to cancel the debt. You contracted for it for it; you are now responsible. An individual must be responsible for their actions.

Advice for those considering taking out student loans:

Before you even consider the college to which you apply, consider the cost. We have excellent state schools that cost a lot less than private colleges. If you cannot get into a four-year college, go to a community college and see if college is for you. Not everyone is suited for college. If you are not, find out what employment suits you best. To get into debt so deeply that you may default will haunt you for your whole life.

Asking an 18-year-old with little to no experience how to invest $100,000 is really a bit mad.

My wife and I owe more than $200,000 in aggregate. As we have not had two steady incomes for more than four years (school and relocation periods have always had one of us out of the office), the student-loan debt commands more than half of our household income. Our peers who do not have advanced degrees (or any degree at all) might have higher net income despite lower gross income, but also enjoy tax benefits that we do not qualify for due to how taxable income is calculated.

The biggest impact of these loan payments may be that we have resisted desires to open our own businesses because we cannot afford the risk of not making the payments.

Advice for those considering taking out student loans:

Both my wife and I come from modest, working-class backgrounds. I would tell high school seniors that loans are still one of the only ways they will get social mobility. Despite my crushing debt, I still believe loans are one of the few mechanisms at our disposal to break up the socio-economic hierarchy that persists in our country.

Unless they are at the very top of their class and really enjoy learning, they should take a year or two and do some internships to figure out exactly what they want to do and how they should invest the money from such a significant loan. Asking an 18-year-old with little to no experience how to invest $100,000 is really a bit mad.