Half of Americans say student debt is 'a major problem.' Here's what borrowers would do without it

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U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks at the National Forum on Wages and Working People

Ethan Miller | Getty Images

When Elizabeth Warren released her sweeping student debt forgiveness proposal last month, many borrowers imagined how their lives would transform if their loan balance shrank or disappeared.

“Emotionally, it’s the biggest thing in the back of your mind,” said Dominic DeFelice, 23, who owes more than $100,000. “To have Elizabeth Warren actually come out and have a plan for it felt really good.”

On Twitter, people described what student debt forgiveness would mean to them and included the hashtag #

Nearly 45 million Americans hold student loans. Average debt at graduation is currently around $30,000, up from $10,000 in the early 1990s. Repayment is a challenge for many: Every day, 3,000 borrowers default.

Warren is the only presidential candidate to issue a detailed plan on student debt forgiveness. Under it, borrowers with household incomes under $100,000 would have $50,000 of their student debt canceled, and those who earn $100,000 to $250,000 would be eligible for relief on a sliding scale. “The time for half measures is over,” Warren writes. “My broad cancellation plan is a real solution to our student debt crisis.

“It helps millions of families and removes a weight that’s holding back our economy.”

Critics of the proposal, which could cost $1.25 trillion over 10 years, say much of the money would go to borrowers with high incomes who are capable of repaying their debt. Others say the plan only throws money at the larger problem of rising tuition.

Still, more than half of Americans say student debt is “a major problem” for the country, according to a new Politico/Morning Consult poll.

And it’s no wonder people saddled with student debt can’t help but dream of a different life (even if the candidate with the proposal trails in the polls): 67 percent of people with student debt say the loans delayed them from buying a house, car or large appliance. Forty percent claimed the debt caused them to put off having a child or getting married.

CNBC spoke with borrowers about how the Massachusetts Democratic senator’s proposal would change their circumstances.

Dominic DeFelice

Source: Dominic DeFelice

DOMINIC DeFELICE’S bachelor’s degree in geology left him $120,000 in the hole. “That amount of money is incomprehensible to someone like me,” said the 23-year-old DeFelice. “I should have known that at 17.”

The entry level jobs to which he’s been applying since he graduated last year from Juniata College in Pennsylvania offer annual salaries of around $30,000. After taxes, he calculates, he’d have $2,200 a month to live on. His student loan bill is more than $1,300. (The loans are currently on pause, accruing interest.)

“I invested in an education and I don’t see a return in sight,” DeFelice said. He said his brother, who is 2 years younger and never went to college, makes more money as a security guard.

DeFelice noticed a lot of the environmental jobs he hoped to fill require a graduate degree. And so thanks to a grant he received, he recently enrolled at Brooklyn College to get his master’s degree in geology. However, he decided to leave school after just one semester, realizing that, given the high cost of living in New York, he’d still have to take out some loans.

I could actually plan my life.

Dominic DeFelice

“It could really amplify my earning potential, but I just can’t,” he said. “I’m just digging myself deeper when I’m already at rock bottom.” Education loans, ironically, can be a barrier to education: One study found that bachelor degree recipients without debt are 70% more likely to enroll in further schooling than those with debt.

Under Warren’s plan, DeFelice would have $50,000 of his federal loans wiped away, and potentially some of his private loans, too. With a smaller debt load, he said, he could likely finish his schooling and not have to move back in with his parents or his girlfriend’s, a reality now on his horizon.

“I could actually plan my life,” he said.

Kanu Mendoza

Source: Kanu Mendoza

KANU MENDOZA wishes she could work less, but she owes more than $50,000 in student loans. When a disk in her back ruptured, the 52-year-old had to leave the Navy after a two-decade career. To advance in the Navy, she pursued a bachelor’s degree in leadership and then a master’s in public administration at Bellevue University in Nebraska.

Currently, she’s a supervisor at an aerospace manufacturing company in San Diego. “If I didn’t have that debt hanging over my head, I’d probably find a less demanding job,” Mendoza said. “It’s difficult when you’re in so much pain you don’t want to move, but you have to get up and go to work.”

Student debt is growing fast among older people: In 2018, Americans over age 50 owed more than $260 billion in student loans, up from $36 billion in 2004, according to the Federal Reserve.

Mendoza said her $400 monthly student loan bill makes it hard for her to save for retirement. Her pension is just $1,500 a month.

“If I didn’t have that debt I could retire in the next few years,” Mendoza said. “With it, I’m going to be in the workforce another 10 years, if not longer.”

Morgan Hopkins

Source: Jaheem J. Green

MORGAN HOPKINS would like to start a family.

But she owes more than $75,000 in student loans, for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology and women’s studies.

“If I could understand the implication of having this debt forever, I might have made a different choice,” Hopkins, 31, said of her education. Today, she works as a national field manager at a nonprofit in Denver.

She said it’s going to take years of planning for her and her boyfriend to be able to have a child and buy a house — and even just a financial cushion should one of them lose their job or fall ill. “If I didn’t have half-a-rent payment in student debt, I’d have an emergency savings plan,” she said.

How am I ever going to get to these goals I have for my life?

Morgan Hopkins

Her monthly student loan bill is more than $900, most of which she said just goes to interest. “I haven’t seen any significant reduction,” Hopkins said.

Under Warren’s plan, half of Hopkins’ debt would be canceled, and all of her boyfriend’s loans would be forgiven. The result: She could see a future.

“I have a lot of financial stress now, as a lot of our generation does,” Hopkins said. “How am I ever going to get to these goals I have for my life?”

Madeline Smith

Source: Madeline Smith

MADELINE FENING, 27, studied communications at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, and has long wanted to tell stories about autism. Her sister is on the spectrum.

After graduation, she moved to Texas to intern at the Austin Film Festival. She wanted to continue working in media, and reporting on the disorder, but her $50,000 in student debt weighed heavily on her. “It feels like before I can do anything else, there’s this huge wall I need to knock down,” Fening said.

She worked as a bartender and told herself that she could develop a documentary on autism at the same time, but she found herself exhausted after shifts. “I’m on my feet and using my body the whole time,” Fening said. And the expenses of making a film are hard to come up with — last year she made $28,000. “I’ve been trying to work on it with limited resources,” she said.

More than half of student loan borrowers say their debt informed their career choice, according to a study by American Student Assistance, an educational nonprofit. Recent research found that an additional $2,500 in student debt makes someone 5 percentage points less likely to be employed in a field related to their studies.

Soon, Fening is moving back to Ohio, where she grew up, to live with family and ultimately secure a cheaper apartment. Most of her debt would be forgiven under Warren’s plan, in which case Fening said she could put more time and resources into her work on autism.

“You shouldn’t have to choose between starting a project and paying your student loans,” Fening said.

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