$100,000 Deep: These Student Loan Horror Stories Have Important Lessons to Teach

UCLA students challenge campus police as students and supporters protest budget cuts
UCLA students challenge campus police as students and supporters protest budget cuts. | David McNew/Getty Images

Horror stories related to student loan debt are fairly common these days. With the average student graduating with an eye-popping average of $37,000 in student loan debt, it’s easy to see why. Going to college is expensive, and often student borrowers don’t realize what they’re signing up for. Add in the crazy bounces the economy and job market can take, and you have a recipe for disaster.
The podcast Death, Sex & Money — a WNYC production — is exploring this further by inviting borrowers from across the country to share their stories. The show, hosted by Anna Sale, is also doing a series of episodes dedicated to the topic. The project is up and available for viewing, and anyone can read the numerous harrowing tales related to student loan debt.
Not all stories are awful, of course. In fact, there are several that will give today’s students hope. But for the people who are in deep — say, more than $100,000 in debt deep — it’s a bleak picture.
We picked through the stories to find some common themes. From these themes, we were able to draw some lessons that can be passed on to the next generation of borrowers. All of the following stories are direct from the project itself, with only a few grammatical and spelling alterations made for readability. We pulled stories from across the country and from both rural and urban areas.
Here are some lessons to be learned from those with student loan debt in excess of $100,000.

1. The terrain can change

  • Total debt: $220,000
  • Location: Chicago

“I wish I could have fully grasped the long term financial burden of student loans and interest rates before clicking ‘accept’ or ‘I agree.’ I’m making payments on an IBR plan; my loans have been consolidated into Direct Plus loans, so I can be on the PSLF program, but much could change in the next four to eight years, making this game plan more expensive.”
The lesson here? Things can change with your loans, even if you’ve been paying them off for years. It’s a shifting landscape, and you’ll need to know what’s happening with your accounts. They could, as in this person’s case, become more expensive overnight.

2. Debt like a constrictor’s coils

man covering his head
A young man contemplates student loan debt. | iStock.com/lolostock
  • Total debt: $260,000
  • Location: Washington, D.C.

“Angie says that student loans dictate everything in her life: her decisions about jobs, children, marriage, buying a house, and saving for retirement. They also dictate her mental health.”
When you’re a quarter-million dollars in debt, it’s hard to focus on anything else. This is a rather common theme in many of the stories shared on Death, Sex & Money‘s project. Debt of this magnitude can have a strangulation effect, and as we know it is causing people to make big changes to their plans.

3. Student loan debt: A literal nightmare

Like Freddy, debt will haunt your dreams. | New Line Cinema
  • Total debt: $270,000
  • Location: New York City

“I constantly have nightmares that I am trapped — in a house, a car, a roller coaster. This isn’t anxiety that a therapist can help with. This is something I did to myself. I have massive private loans and additional federal loans all for my undergraduate education only. I have a cosigner who is a family friend. I feel so fucking guilty all the time.”
The impact on a borrower’s mental health is another common thread. If your debt load is burrowing so deep into your consciousness that you’re dreaming about it, you know it’s a serious issue. And then, as this person explains, there’s the guilt that comes along with it.

4. High stakes; big rewards

two red rolling dice
Would you roll the dice on debt? | iStock.com
  • Total debt: $350,000
  • Location: Gainesville, Florida

“I’m actually one of the lucky ones. The specialty I selected within medicine allows me to make enough in order to eventually pay it back. But I’m single, and my family is in no financial means to help me out. I feel trapped, have to work a lot, and in constant fear that if I injure myself I will get swallowed by my dept.”
It’s hard to imagine having $350,000 in student loan debt and feeling “lucky.” But that’s what happened in this case. Even though this individual’s job allows them to earn a high income, they still feel “trapped.”

5. Oh, the places you’ll go

Pre-dawn traffic travels Highway 95 in Arizona
Traffic travels on Highway 95 in Arizona. | David McNew/Getty Images
  • Total debt: $160,000
  • Location: Chinle, Arizona

“Sara and her husband moved to a Navajo Nation reservation in Arizona for a loan forgiveness program for medical professionals working in ‘hardship sites.’ They never would have moved to Arizona if it weren’t for the loan forgiveness program, but the decision has completely enriched their lives.”
Large debt loads can lead to decisions you never thought you’d make. In this case, it’s led two people to a rural Native American reservation in Arizona to try to latch onto a forgiveness program. This was something many people who shared their stories mentioned doing.

6. Hard lessons: The trade-off

Handshake between two colleagues in office
When you agree to a loan you say goodbye to other life choices. | iStock.com/Saklakova
  • Total debt: $100,000
  • Location: Los Angeles

“When I first came to the U.S., people told me all I needed to succeed in America was education. Loan repayment was too far in the future to be of concern to anyone. Now, after seven years of schooling and a J.D., I realize that a substantial part of my income will have to go toward loan repayment limiting my choice of employment and lifestyle.”
Everything is a trade-off. And many borrowers had similar stories to this one. The cost of their education led to many doors closing that might have otherwise remained open. That goes for both career choices and lifestyle.

7. Choose wisely

crossroads spliting in two ways
You might have to choose between a major for passion or pay. | iStock.com/SonerCdem
  • Total debt: $125,000
  • Location: San Francisco

“I went to art school to study design in my mid 20s after working minimum wage jobs since high school. It took about a year longer than anticipated to graduate. I was lucky to get a job offer from a tech company before I graduated. With a six-figure salary, my life has not scaled two years later. I pay $2,500 per month on my loans.”
Another very common story is borrowers who chose poor majors or subjects to study. It’s not that the subjects are bad, necessarily, but they don’t lead to opportunities. In this person’s case, it was design. There are many others, too, such as photography and art that repeatedly pop up.

8. Be interested in interest rates

A woman talks with a banker.
A woman discusses interest rates with a banker. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images
  • Total debt: $160,000
  • Location: Seattle

“I graduated from undergrad with no loans thanks to my parents help and scholarships. I was on my own for law school. While I have a great paying job and can afford to make my payments, what frustrates me the most is the interest rate. I have a mortgage, and the interest rate is 4.1%. My federal student loans (all are federal), range from 5% to 8%.”
The lesson here is to pay attention to the fine print. You might not even consider the interest rates on your loans when you’re young, but eventually, they’ll hit you hard. Sometimes, a school loan will cost you more than a loan for a house.

9. Debt and marriage

holding engagement ring
When you get married, you marry that person’s debt, too. | iStock.com/sswartz
  • Total debt: $150,000
  • Location: Dallas

“Kylee got a full-ride scholarship to college, but her husband has debt from his undergraduate and doctoral degrees. Then, she went for her MBA, adding to the couple’s debt. She once vowed never to go into debt because of her parents’ experiences, but now she’s facing loans. She’s scared about what happens if there’s a crisis.”
A lot of people end up getting married. A part of that is knowing how it’ll impact your finances. Several stories similar to this one show up on Death, Sex & Money‘s project.

10. Expect the unexpected

caution tape
Life is full of the unexpected, so proceed with caution. | iStock.com
  • Total debt: $201,000
  • Location: Boise, Idaho

“I received my undergraduate, my master’s, and doctorate from a prestigious university. After my residency I worked for six years in my field. I fell ill with chronic pancreatitis. If I file to discharge it may affect my ability for licensure and work in the future. Can’t buy a house; renting as my debt is a house at $200,000. Dream is dead.”
A phrase, such as “dream is dead,” should resonate with us all — especially when you consider taking out the loans was probably meant to help position this person to achieve their dream. But things happen. And the unexpected (such as a nasty diagnosis) can make things all but impossible.

11. The parent trap

Ben Stiller
Your parents’ income will affect your ability to get a loan. | Universal
  • Total debt: $102,000
  • Location: St. Paul, Minnesota

“Due to my parents’ income, I barely qualified for federal aid and was forced to resort to taking out private student loans — with substantially higher interest rates. Now, six years after graduation, I’ve technically paid the amount of money I took out, but due to interest still owe over $100,000. It’s infuriating and depressing.”
“Infuriating and depressing” — this might best encapsulate the entire project in three words. And this particular story points out one of the flaws with the system, which is aid is often tied to your parents’ income. Even if your parents have no intention of helping you, what they make can and will impact how you pay for school.

12. It can always get worse

man with head in hands at laptop
A man deals with his student loan debt reality. | iStock.com
  • Total debt: $200,000
  • Location: Portales, New Mexico

“I incurred a lot of student loan debt earning a Ph.D. and a master’s degree. The job market in my field was so bad that it took years for me to get a job as a professor. I couldn’t pay my loans because I had to work as an adjunct for years, and the pay was dismal. Now, I owe more than double my original debt just in interest and penalties.”
Yes, it can always get worse. Look at this person’s situation, for example. They have somehow managed to go further in debt because they couldn’t make the payments on the original amount. So, yes, the hole can and will get deeper.

13. What could have been

Mom, dad and baby walk at sunset
Your debt might be your baby. | iStock.com/Lacheev
  • Total debt: $158,445
  • Location: Baton Rouge, Louisiana

“Nola writes that her student loan amount represents the baby that she and her husband decided not to have — because of their student loans.”
We’ve touched on this already. There are trade-offs, and some of them we never see coming. Huge student loan debt loads are leading to life detours, and that means putting off having a family, as in the case of Nola and her husband.

14. Shadow boxing

Young boxer wearing red gloves working on punching bag
You could pay down your loans for years and still have a long way to go. | iStock.com/master1305
  • Total debt: $193,000
  • Location: Lewisville, North Carolina

“I went to veterinary school and graduated with $180,000 of debt. I graduated in 2008, right as the housing bubble burst. I have been faithfully making payments on my loans for the past nine years and yet have paid less than $20,000 in principal with $1,200 per month payments. It is a very defeating feeling to not see the numbers go down.”
Imagine making payments for a decade and barely putting a dent in your balances. That’s another common theme. You’d expect to have some momentum nine years after you started making payments, but it’s not always the case.

15. Student loans: The hole gets deeper

A man digging a grave
You might keep digging yourself deeper into debt. | Hulton Archive/Getty Images
  • Total debt: $400,000
  • Location: Philadelphia

“Elliot-Imani’s post-college job didn’t pay enough to afford quality of life and student loans. She went to law school to defer student loans, though she realizes it’s counterintuitive to take on more student loans in order to defer paying older student loans. She’s now going to school full time and working at night in order to try to make a dent in her loans.”
This is something else we’ve touched on: It can always get worse. Elliot-Imani’s story proves it. Now, nearly half a million dollars in debt from student loans, she’s facing a very, very bleak future.
Check out Death, Sex & Money‘s full project for hundreds of other stories. Death, Sex & Money is a production of WNYC.