Down Debt

Meet a millennial with $130,000 in student debt 14 years after graduation

  • Shanna Bennett owes over $130,000 in student debt.
  • That’s $30,000 more than she owed 14 years ago when she graduated, because of interest.
  • She says it affected her credit rating, her relationships and her ability to pay off other debts, like her car.

Shanna Bennett was the first person in her family to attend college – and growing up, there was no doubt she would be.

Bennett’s family immigrated from Jamaica to Philadelphia in the 1990s when she was 7 years old.

“Once we got here, it was clear that my job was to be educated and to receive an education,” the 37-year-old told Insider. “It was a big deal for me to get into an American university and graduate. But at no time did anyone mention the cost.”

When Bennett graduated from college and graduate school in 2008, she owed more than $100,000 in student loans. After graduating, she struggled to find a job that paid enough to manage her debt, which eventually peaked at nearly $200,000 with interest. It’s been 14 years since she left school, but she still owes more than $130,000 to private loan companies, which Insider verified through documents shared by Bennett.

Bennett’s story is like that of many Americans, 43 million of whom have student loan debt — that’s one in 8, according to a NerdWallet analysis of May 2021 census data. People between the ages of 25 and 34 are most likely to hold student loan debt, but the largest amount is owed by people between the ages of 35 and 49, like Bennett — more than $600 billion collectively.

Since March 2020, federal borrowers have not been required to repay their student loans and have not been charged new interest, but pressure is mounting for President Joe Biden to cancel some or all of that debt. In late April, Biden said he “would have an answer” on the pardon in the coming weeks.

“It affected me in every way,” she added. “When we talk about student debt, there’s this idea that the people who talk about it openly are lazy and not hardworking, but we are.”

“I saw they were at $200,000, and that’s where the shame set in”

Bennett said she didn’t realize how difficult it would be to pay off her debt until she graduated. And even then, she didn’t realize that she could make payments for almost 15 years and owe even more than she did on graduation day.

“My family went through the process of higher education without knowing much about it,” she said. “Looking back, I would have loved it if community college was pushed more. But the idea was that it wasn’t challenging for me or good enough for me.”

After graduating from college, Bennett immediately enrolled in a master’s program in business psychology, which she said she chose based on earning potential. She is currently working as a human resources manager in a medium-sized manufacturing company, but it took her years to get a job like that.

She said she chose her field of study “without fully understanding what an entry-level position for this degree looks like,” she said. After graduating, she says she struggled to find a job, despite having two degrees in her field. When she finally did, she was only making $15 an hour.

After seven years of making the minimum payment on her monthly bill, she had barely made a dent in the principal amount. She requested forbearance so that she could temporarily stop repaying her loans, as they were too heavy to handle. But she still had to pay accrued interest each month – ranging from 6.5% to 10% – which made the process feel like it was walking on a treadmill and never reaching the end.

“It wasn’t until I got married and got my first job as a big girl that I thought, ‘Let’s go.’ And when I sat down to look at my bills, I saw they were $200,000, and that’s where the shame set in.”

“Our money should be in the market and growing”

When Bennett got engaged to her ex-husband, she told him how much debt she had and they took a course to pay it off.

The course encouraged people to pay off their smaller debts first, foregoing longer-term investments like saving for retirement in order to devote all the extra money to paying bills, she said. . It didn’t suit him. “I was a human resources manager at the time,” she said, “encouraging employees to take advantage of their benefits, and I wasn’t even registered there.”

Over the past few years, Bennett said, she’s found a wealth of resources in the personal finance community on Instagram, as well as Debt Collective, a debtors’ syndicate.

Instagram “allowed me to start pumping money into my 401k,” she said. “Our money should be in the market and growing… some of us have been in debt for over 20 years, and not throwing money away in retirement all that time is ridiculous.”

Through the personal finance community, Bennett said she also learned how to pay off her car loan, adding that her credit card bill also gets paid every month.

Bennett said she’s in much better shape than she was a few years ago, but that debt still cuts her off from the future.

“I would love to travel right now,” she said. “I have a good job and no kids, but I have this debt…I have just under $132,000 left in debt, and I’m watching very closely what the Biden administration does with student loans. .”