In March 2020, then-President Trump and Congress paused federal student loan payments and set interest rates to zero, offering student borrowers a reprieve during the financial uncertainty of the pandemic.
The repayment pause and several extensions gave former students a glimpse of what life could look like if they didn’t have the debt. To learn more about their experiences, The Times interviewed over a dozen borrowers of the more than 70, from recent college graduates to those carrying student debt in their 50s, who responded to requests on social media to share how the payment pause helped them.
Several talked about how they approached paying for college and the ways in which they tried to avoid debt, some by going to community college or working while they were in school. Millennial borrowers in particular said they felt older generations didn’t understand their experience.
Those carrying student debt also shared their hopes for what comes next. President Biden is reportedly considering a plan to forgive at least $10,000 in debt for people making under $125,000 a year. Some said they wanted full forgiveness or a reduction of the interest rates on their loans, while others said they were concerned about what forgiveness would cost, or noted that it wouldn’t fix the larger issue of college costs.
Here are the stories of five student borrowers, as told to The Times. Their comments have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Christopher Brescia, 29, restaurant regional manager, South Plainfield, N.J.
Brescia went to community college, then earned a bachelor’s degree of applied science in hospitality management from Fairleigh Dickinson University. He has $41,000 left in federal and private student loans and is a co-signer on private loans that his wife, Ashley, holds.
My first-ever job was going into IHOP as a manager, and that was $38,000 a year, traveling into a different state because I just wanted to get my foot in the door. I was severely behind on bills, because the bills started coming in for student loans.
Even though I went to Fairleigh for two years and got a scholarship, my bills were coming out to about almost $1,000 a month. I don’t know how I was able to afford it, but I was able to, thank God. I had to put myself in a little bit of credit card debt. But eventually I kept moving up the ladder, making more money. My degree actually worked out for me.
I still pay the private loans. I have not put a penny towards the federal at this point in time. I know it would help significantly, but I don’t want to pay that right now. I got my house, and that was a key factor — that I had one less bill.
My wife is in significantly more debt than I am, and most of it, unfortunately, is private. I think she’s above the $100,000 range. So, as a household, we’re probably about in the $150,000 range.
I’ll put it very blunt out there: I’m not a supporter of Biden; I’m really not. I’m not a fan of a lot of the policies. Yes, I could possibly benefit from this policy. But do I agree with it? Yes and no.
If people get help on this, I’ll be happy for them. That’s the truth of it. Am I afraid of the consequences of what will happen? Yeah, absolutely I am. We’re already at such an inflation rate and I’m very nervous — anything like this could further that inflation rate significantly.
But I’m afraid of the consequences of what will happen if people continue to have this debt and have no way to pay it off.
Marissa Sotomayor, 26, historical analyst, Phoenix
Sotomayor received a bachelor’s degree in history in 2017 and a master’s degree in history in 2018, both from Arizona State University. She has $80,000 in federal student loans.
I was sent home from my job to telework indefinitely in March of 2020. And within probably about a month, my husband was laid off. The state rejected all of his claims for unemployment.
The first or second time he got rejected, we got the news that student loan payments were going to be suspended. I can’t even explain the relief that I felt in that moment. He had already been out of work for a couple of weeks, and we were starting to feel the squeeze. It was like, “OK, well, do we buy food for us, or do we buy food for the dogs?”
To get to a place where it’s either paying what you owe — paying your debts — or feeding your family is an impossible choice. I thankfully wasn’t facing that choice, partially because of the relief of not having to pay.
I’m not registered with either party. But I think a big draw of voting for the Democratic side, for Joe Biden, was kind of that illusory promise of student loan forgiveness, whether that was total forgiveness, or like $10,000 or $50,000.
We’re still trying to get back on our feet. He’s working now and has a much better job. But expenses are just through the roof. Rent has gone up. Groceries — I can’t believe how expensive they’ve gotten. Nothing has really eased on the expense side except for the student loan payments.
Cole Klasi, 23, financial services industry, Eau Claire, Wis.
Klasi graduated from University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in December 2020 with a business degree. He has $4,000 left on $8,000 in federal student loan debt.
The pause on student loan payments has been a blessing for me. If the student loan pause is extended, my goal is to pay it off by the end of 2022. My original student loan balance was $8,000.
In my opinion, as an independent, federal student loans should not be broadly forgiven in any dollar amount beyond existing programs such as Public Service, fraud from a university, etc. Broad loan forgiveness doesn’t solve the root issue of the problem: The cost of a college education has increased astronomically.
And even if $10,000 was canceled for all borrowers tomorrow, what will society say to high school seniors or Americans that skipped college entirely or dropped out due to high costs? “Sorry, looks like you were born a few years too late,” or, “That’s a bummer you never went. Too bad you didn’t get $10,000 for free.”
That said, I will support legislation permanently lowering the interest rate on all existing and future federal student loans to 0% APR. Do I think this will happen someday? Unfortunately, no. Obviously, no politician wants to be “the bad guy” and irk their constituents that have become accustomed to a payment-free lifestyle.
But someday the student loan pause will end, just like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s rent moratorium. It’s time to rip off the political Band-Aid, now rather than later, and move forward with paying off what we each borrowed.
Tyler Hurwitz, 31, jewelry designer, Richmond, Va.
Hurwitz attended a small, for-profit art school she declined to name, and received a bachelor of fine arts degree from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2021. She has $63,000 in federal student loans and $40,000 in private loans.
After I graduated from high school, I went to a small, private — I wouldn’t say college, but it was meant to serve as college for people. It focused on advertising and design. The whole premise of that place was you go there for two years, and then afterwards you get a job doing design.
I went back to school when I was 27. My mindset going into it was completely and entirely different than any other previous attempt at higher education. I had been working jobs that required mandatory overtime for years at a time. And I was just working and working, and at the end of the day, at the end of the month, I really had nothing to show for it.
I would say that the difference between the federal loans and the private loan, so far as I know, is that private loans are way more predatory. In my experience, I’ve had absolutely no luck getting them to lower my monthly payment. And if you don’t pay it every month, not only will they call you at least five times a day, they’ll also call your co-signer.
Thankfully, my financial situation is starting to even out a little bit. But going back to school as an adult, I left my career behind. I pretty much depleted any savings that I had. So I’m in the process, now that I’m working, just sort of trying to fix it.
Athena Papasodero, 29, analytical chemist, San Diego
Papasodero received a bachelor of science in biology from UC Santa Cruz in 2015 and a master’s degree in biomedical science from UC Irvine in 2017. She has $33,000 in federal student loans.
I grew up in a single-parent household with my mother. I knew what money was, and I knew that we didn’t have it. From a really early age, I put two and two together that if you go to college and get a degree, you have more doors open for you.
I didn’t think about how to pay for college until I was applying. When I first started high school — that was 2008, during the housing crash — my mother lost her home. We eventually got a one-bedroom apartment. So it’s me, my mom, my two sisters, and she couldn’t even afford to furnish it. And we’re sleeping on mats on the floor in our room. And I’m applying to college.
I only applied to University of California schools, because they offered me a waiver so that I would not have to pay for the application, because my mother could not afford to pay.
I took out whatever was offered to me, like the Pell Grant, and then I had to supplement with student loans.
It’s hard to meet a lot of the milestones like buying your house when you have to pay these student loans back. I think this disproportionately affects lower-income people and first-generation college students. It makes the inequity in our society just glaringly apparent.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I got a degree in a field that does pay well. But I had to get my master’s and it took me about five years working to really start getting paid, where I can comfortably live on my own. I was living with my mom until a year ago.
I think student loans should be forgiven. I know a lot of people are saying, “Oh, you took the loans out, and you should pay them back; it’s your responsibility.” But who lets an 18-year-old take out thirty-something thousand dollars just willy-nilly?
There’s the other group of people saying, “Well, I paid mine off; you should, too.” But that person should have never had to pay those off. People shouldn’t have to take out loans to get a degree.
For the record:
5:21 p.m. May 31, 2022: An earlier version of this story said that Marissa Sotomayor received a master’s degree in art history in 2018 from Arizona State University. She received a master’s degree in history.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.