Many of us know the numbers. $1.3 trillion in outstanding student debt. More than 40 million Americans, of all ages, coping with student loans.
But what does it really mean to be one of those borrowers? Death, Sex & Money, a podcast, focused on, you guessed it — death, sex and money — is exploring that question with two episodes this week. The show, from WNYC Studios, will feature borrowers from all across the country sharing the different ways student debt has impacted their lives.
The goal of the episodes — combined with an interactive map and other tools borrowers can use to explore and share student loan stories — is to illustrate the ways in which student debt has become an almost universal American experience, said Death, Sex & Money host, Anna Sale.
“We wanted people to see that they’re part of a big shift in how much education costs and how people are paying for it,” she said. “And then hopefully help them deal with it honestly.”
MarketWatch spoke with Sale about what she learned from talking to listeners about their debt, student loans’ relationship to sex and death, and more.
MarketWatch: How did you come up with the idea to do a show on student loans?
Anna Sale: We just had a sense that a lot of people were dealing with making student loan payments and it was changing the way adulthood starts in the U.S.
We asked our listeners a very open question: “Tell us about your student loans and how they’ve affected other decisions in your life?” It’s been completely overwhelming the response we’ve gotten from listeners.
More people have more student loans, but they still feel isolated and somewhat ashamed of having these payments. People were ready and wanting to share because they felt alone.
MW: Were there common ways the isolation that you’re describing played out among listeners?
Sale: There’s first the phenomenon of people feeling like they graduated from school and they start getting these student loan statements and bills and they’re like, “Oh God, this is not something I fully understood when I was taking on these loans.”
A lot of people have talked about not fully getting how much compound interest was going to cause them to not be able to keep up with the balance increasing or just how much longer it was going to take them to pay off.
The other thing we heard was this sense of basically imposter syndrome. People were writing in with stories of getting advanced degrees — so they have the appearance of success — and then they hardly have enough money to make it month to month because they have these enormous student loan bills.
One guy who is in the episode that comes out on Wednesday is a guy named Sharif. He is an immigrant from Bangladesh, ended up paying his way through college with student loans, became a chemical engineer.
It is an incredible story. But I interviewed him sitting in his car outside his office because no one he works with knows that he owes more than six figures in student loan debt. It looks like he’s successful, but he doesn’t feel like he’s any better off financially than he was before he went to school.
MW: How did the stories you heard from listeners match up with the narrative we generally hear in the media and elsewhere about student debt?
Sale: There is idea that if you hear young people complaining about student loan payments that like ‘Oh, you know, they took them out, they got educated, just buckle down and pay your student loan bills.’
On the one hand if you take out a loan, you’ve got to pay it back. But on the other hand … it feels like a really different landscape now. It’s not something that’s super easy to pay off in five to seven years to 10 years after college.
I don’t think we’ve adjusted how we talk about college to reflect the reality of how much it costs now.
I interview a senior in college and she talked about deciding finally to go to a state school instead of the elite private school that she got into because she looked at the numbers and thought, ‘I can’t take on so much debt.’ She said, “I think my mom feels worse about it because my mom feels like she hasn’t been able to provide me with the opportunity to go to the schools I really want to go to.”
Colleges, guidance counselors even financial aid counselors at colleges, no one is incentivized to go, “Hey hang on maybe you should think about what your monthly student loan payment is going to be when you’re 25, 26 years old.”
MW: How does student debt relate to some of the other themes — like sex and money — that you explore in the show?
Sale: We heard stories about people delaying marriage because they didn’t want to have joint incomes because their federal loan payments were based on their income.
We talked to one woman whose engagement ended up breaking off because her fiancé just couldn’t fathom having kids when she had the amount of student debt that she had.