Episode 3 Transcript of the United States of Debt, for Slate Plus members.

Read About How the Student Loan Crisis Is Sucking Our Economy Dry

Read About How the Student Loan Crisis Is Sucking Our Economy Dry

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July 12 2016 1:25 PM

How Are Student Loans Forcing Us All to Pay the High Cost of Education?

Read a transcript of the United States of Debt’s third episode, which looks the high cost of student loans.


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To listen to Episode 3, visit the show page.

The transcript below supplements the United States of Debt, a Slate Academy. To learn more and enroll, visit Slate.com/debt.

Rosette: So, Sallie Mae is, like, this bloodthirsty woman who calls you all the time.

Ami: It was scary, it was depressing. There were times that I would just go into a deep depression, and couldn't get myself out of it, because I felt like, I'm never going to get out from the weight of these loans.

Americans owe $1.3 trillion in student loans. That’s a number that’s so large it’s almost incomprehensible. And in the view of many, it’s a drain on us and a drain on our economy.

Studies show this mountain of money is impacting everything from home buying to marital choices.

Four out 5 of those with loans said they made sacrifices so they could make their monthly payment. One-half said they delayed contributions to retirement accounts.

And it’s not just recent graduates or millennials.

Close to 1 in 5 people who need to pay a student loan bill are over 50. Sometimes it’s money they borrowed to help their kids or grandchildren attend college. Other times, it’s debt they acquired for their own education—money borrowed to go back to school in midlife to improve their prospects in our forever uncertain economy.

And that $1.3 trillion impacts all of us. Even if we don’t owe a penny at all.

Welcome back to the United States of Debt. I’m Helaine Olen, our host. In this episode we’re going to explore student debt—and what it’s doing to all our lives.

Are student loans more common than in the past? Are student loans inevitable for most of us? And what do for-profit schools have to do with all this?

Chapter 1: “You Aren’t Going Anywhere Without College”

Rosette: I always assumed, until about 10th or 11th grade, that I was going to stay home, because that's what I had seen people around me do. A teacher that was very close to me had said, like, you know, you have options. Colleges want people like you. You know, you need to apply away. You need to go away. You can get into a good school, you can go away, go.

Rosette Cirillo is 23 years old. She teaches eighth-grade English at an urban public school in Massachusetts. But it took $120,000 in student loans to get her in front of that classroom.

There’s no question that on average college graduates earn more money—lots more money—than people who don’t go to college. But it takes a lot of money to get them to that point.

Rosette’s a first-generation college graduate from the blue-collar reaches of New York’s Long Island.

Rosette: My mother cleaned houses growing up, and my father is a maintenance man at Costco. And he's in his 50s and he's still doing some manual labor.

Today, she makes around $54,000 a year. That’s less than half of her student loan bill. But it’s more than what her parents earned annually combined when she was growing up. How did she get into so much debt? It all began when Rosette was accepted to Bard College.

Rosette:  And I remember sitting on my living room floor with my mom and my dad. I had just gotten back so I was really tired. And I was opening them up, you know, Fordham, New Paltz, OK. Skidmore, OK.

And then, I opened up Bard's, and even though it was a really small envelope, and they've gotten a lot of flak for this, like, out slipped right onto the floor the, it was red cardstock, um, with the gold Bard crest and it said congratulations. And I just—I started sobbing immediately. Because I think it, in many ways, I knew like what that could mean.

Bard’s a bucolic, renowned liberal arts college in upstate New York. Among those who have attended the school are Rolling Stone’s left-wing journalist Matt Taibbi and a heck of a lot of people who are prominent in the entertainment business, including Chevy Chase and Gaby Hoffmann.

But Bard’s also one of the most expensive colleges in the United States. This coming year, tuition, room, and board will cost an incoming freshman more than $67,000.

Rosette’s quick to say Bard was quite generous with its aid. But not all of it was grant money. There were loans too.

Rosette: Once, like, scholarships and student loans came up sort of later in freshman year, that's when I almost started to feel, like, this embarrassment. I had pretty frequent dreams once I figured it out my first year, of my parents, or the financial aid people, showing up to my dorm room and telling me I had to leave. And I didn't know what that was about. I didn't know why. And then it started hitting me that I had way more loans.

And she was right. Many of her fellow students weren’t in the same position as her.

Rosette: I mean, I guess, the way I dress, the way I acted, it came to my attention, I think, through loving ridicule, but through my peers my freshman year at Bard that I had a pretty strong accent. You know Long Island. Long Island. So I thought maybe I didn't feel as smart as the other students, but in hindsight, it was because I was coming to this realization of, like, oh, you're not from the same class as these people. Their parents, you know, are CEOs and CFOs. They have these shiny new cars. And I was driving a car that my Uncle Salvator got me on a favor, that was, like, an old two-door Saturn covered in, um, dog hair on the inside from no one's dog that we knew. And well, I always that was sort of, like, funny and quirky. Um, it became something that you're pretty embarrassed about and you're not going to offer people rides. You feel embarrassed, and almost ashamed.

It wasn’t that the students were unfriendly, or mean. It was, she said, that even their good intentions could be clueless.

Rosette: On graduation day, my senior year, graduation day comes and in order to raise awareness, everyone who had debt was wearing these red felt little squares. And I could not wear that square and ruin that moment for my family. I'm going to walk across the stage. I'm going to smile. I'm going to give some finger guns. We're going to go out to dinner and have a great night. And then, I'll pay my loans later. They shouldn't have to worry about that or think of me as, you know, she almost made it, but you know, it's our fault that we couldn't support her through it.

But despite the heavy weight of her loans, she got through that day. She graduated. And even went off to grad school at Harvard, where she took on another $30,000 in loans to get a master’s in education.

Rosette: I think I really saw that education was this game changer for people. It was a game changer for me. It really changed the course of my life. And that was as, like, a lower middle class kid in a blue-collar town. I also understand that if you are living in poverty, that education could change the course of your life. And every time I kept reading about things, for me, it kept really coming back down to the teacher in the classroom.

Her  tab is $900 a month. That’s for a combination of federally subsidized and private loans. The money can be difficult to manage, but what’s even worse for Rosette is dealing with student loan company Sallie Mae.

Rosette, you see, wanted to consolidate her loans with a different company. But there was a slight delay in the process, so Sallie Mae was still calling her multiple times a day, demanding she pay her monthly bill. From their perspective, the consolidation had not gone through yet. The money was due.

Rosette: And when you're sitting at dinner with friends, you're out at drinks and Sallie Mae's calling you, or it's rumbling in my desk while I'm teaching and my kids are asking me who's that, and they keep calling. And I keep my phone in my desk, and for it to keep rattling and then the students to ask me, like, who keeps calling you? Is it an emergency? Is everything okay?

I think that was some of the worst of it, because in some ways, I'm really honest with kids. I wanted to be really honest with them and say it's a student loan company hassling me. But you know, I didn't do that.

Helaine Olen: Why not?

Rosette: Because they're 14. I don't want them to have to think about it just yet in some ways.

When we asked Sallie Mae for comment, they said they couldn't discuss specific cases without the borrower’s permission. But a spokesperson did write back, saying that, “Our top priority is to help customers keep their loans in good standing and build good credit, and that includes reaching out to customers to help them prevent loans from going delinquent.” They also told us, “The only time we make repeated calls is when we are trying to reach customers to help them manage their loans and preserve their good credit.”

Chapter 2: “Where Did Student Loans Come From?”

You might be thinking Rosette has all of these loans because she’s graduated from two very prestigious private universities and comes from a working-class family, and hey, maybe she should have gone to a local community college anyway. But that’s not the full story.

Actually, there are lots of reasons why student debt has exploded.

I called up Sara Goldrick-Rab. She’s one of the nation’s leading scholars on financing college education. Where, I asked her, did student loans come from anyway?

Sara Goldrick-Rab: Well, they came out of a conversation that started, really, in the mid-1960s about how to help people go to college at a time when there was a lot of interest at the public policy level in getting more people to go. And since they wanted more people to go, they were concerned that there'd be folks who couldn't pay for it. There was a question about whether we should essentially give people money through grants, or whether we should loan them money. And if we were going to loan them money, was that because this was a good investment, and they'd be able to pay it back? And the thinking at the time was yes, we ought to just loan people the money and then they will be able to pay us back eventually because college will pay off for them.

What no one could foresee was that college costs would soon explode. Tuition would go up at rates well beyond that of inflation. Not for years, but for decades.

In the 1990s, about half of students needed to borrow money to complete their four-year degree. Today, almost three-quarters of students do.

And those students are borrowing more than in the past. According to Mark Kantrowitz, a longtime student loan expert, the amount that they have borrowing has almost tripled in the past two decades.

To make things worse, states have cut funding deeply for public colleges. The average state is now spending 17 percent less than it did before the Great Recession. And that’s adjusted for inflation. As a result of all of this, tuition’s increased.

Federal grant money did not keep up with tuition prices either. I’m talking about Pell grants, which are given to students from low- and moderate-income families to attend college. In the 1980s, they paid for the vast majority of the bill at a four-year public college. Today, they cover less than a third.

No surprise, many people turn to easy credit in the form of student loans.

Bob Lawless: The increase in consumer credit is part of a larger story about the erosion of public involvement and public support for the necessities and the things that we think people should be able to have. The government can subsidize public education. When it doesn’t do that, the cost of the education goes up. The people don’t have any more money to pay for it. They have to borrow for it, right. So that’s, I think, one of the things that’s going on with educational loans.

That’s Bob Lawless, a professor and expert on debt at the University of Illinois’ law school. He thinks that the ease of access to educational loans takes the heat off of our government to provide support students really need.

And something else, too.

A lot of students wanted something different from their college experience. They wanted a more career oriented education, or a more flexible schedule—so they turned to for-profit colleges.

 “Over 20 years, 31 million students started college but didn’t complete a degree—for lots of reasons. At Devry University, we believe there are also lots of reasons to finish.”

“Brooke is earning her degree one step at a time by focusing on one subject at a time. Megan is not. Find out how Brown Mackie’s one-course-a-month schedule can help you fit education into your busy life.”

 “If you’re up for the challenge and ready to take the next step, now’s the time to consider where Kendall College can take you.”

“For the education you need to do what you love. Fortis: Your life, powered by learning.”

But for-profit colleges exist to make profit for somebody. This distinguishes them from public universities, which are funded by the state money, and private nonprofit colleges, which should be self-explanatory.

According to federal law, for-profit colleges can receive up to 90 percent of their revenue from the federal student aid programs.

Goldrick-Rab: The latest data really indicates that the for-profit colleges have a lot to do with the student loan problem, and in particular, with the student default problem.

That’s Sara Goldrick-Rab again. She and other experts say that for-profits are one of the primary drivers of the student loan crisis. And so do a lot of students who have attended them.

Chapter 3: “Who Are For-Profits For?”

Ami: When they showed me the job placement statistics, they were over 90 percent for the whole school. And they assured me that I would be able to get a job after graduating that would help me to pay off the loans.

That’s Ami. She’s 29 years old and lives with her partner and 5-year-old daughter in a Chicago suburb. Ami and her mother combined owe about $100,000 for the degree she received from the Illinois Institute of Art, a for-profit college.

If that name sounds familiar to you, they’re also known as The Art Institutes.

“Who will create tomorrow? Tomorrow’s cuisine? Tomorrow’s interior design? Tomorrow’s apps? Or tomorrow’s fashion. With a focused degree that prepares you for the creative world, it could be you. Create tomorrow. The Art Institutes.”

But the Education Management Corporation, the parent company of the Art Institutes, is rather controversial. It’s been sued multiple times. In 2011, the Department of Justice joined a whistleblower lawsuit, one that claimed, among other things, that the school deliberately recruited unqualified and uninformed students for the purpose of collecting student aid money. School officials denied the allegations, but settled the case last year for $95.5 million.

In another case, EDMC, as it’s known, is forgiving nearly $103 million worth of student loan debt.

And since last year, EDMC has announced the gradual closures of 19 of its Art Institutes schools, citing adverse business conditions. It’s in the process of closing some of their other for-profit campuses as well.

 “Tonight, a major college chain based right here in Pittsburgh is accused of cheating taxpayers out of more than $1 billion. The whistleblower lawsuit targets EDMC—parent institute of the Art Institutes.”

 “A previous I-Team Investigation exposed accusations of unethical practices at the Art Institutes and three other major colleges—all run by EDMC, a for-profit company with 110 campuses.”

 “They are defrauding the federal government, the taxpayers, and the students.”

 “Nothing that I ever learned at an Art Institute do I think I can apply to the real world.”

We met Ami thanks to her work with the Debt Collective, an Occupy Wall Street offshoot. The group is seeking student loan forgiveness for students such as Ami.

Ami, like Rosette, was a first-generation college student. Her father is a truck driver, and her mother is a postal carrier.

When she graduated high school in 2004, she was all set to attend the Columbia College Chicago, a well-regarded nonprofit liberal arts college. She planned to major in photography and minor in film. But due to some family issues, she needed the money and had to work full time instead. A few years later, she ended up at the Illinois Institute of Art in Schaumburg, located in the Chicago suburbs. The appeal? She could still work full-time.

Ami:  And when we went in there, we were concerned about how we would pay for it, because my job you know, I wasn't making a lot of money. I was making enough to pay my bills while living independently. And my mom tried to tell them that she didn't think that she would qualify for loans, because her debt-to-income ratio was pretty high.

But much of the aid came in the form of student loans. Something that happens at public, for-profit, and private colleges. As a result, Ami now has about $30,000 in debt from school. Her mother, who also took out loans to pay the bill, has approximately $78,000.

Ami wasn’t expecting to borrow this much money to attend college. And she wasn’t the only one.

According to one of the whistleblowers in the same 2011 Department of Justice case that settled last year, admissions counselors for the Art Institute routinely minimized the cost of attendance and were trained to quote costs per credit. They rarely mentioned that each class was worth multiple credits.

Once school started, Ami was quickly disappointed. Classes, she says, didn’t line up with her work schedule. And there were other things, too.

Ami: I started noticing that a lot of the courses were the same courses repeated, which I thought was a waste of time and money. I also started noticing that teachers were not showing up to classes at all or, if you had an 8 a.m. class, they weren't starting for about an hour in. And we were teaching ourselves a lot of things based on tutorials that were found for free on the internet.

Ami was far from alone. Other students at Art Institute campuses report similar experiences. One student told Good Housekeeping in 2014 that some professors only taught for an hour even when a class had been scheduled to run for much longer. And according to various online forums, there are multiple complaints reinforcing what Ami has said.

Ami tried going back to Columbia College, where she had been accepted earlier. But there was a problem.  If Columbia were to find the Art Institute’s courses weren’t equivalent to theirs, the credits wouldn’t transfer towards her major, a serious possibility.

Panicking, Ami tried to drop out of Art Institute. She talked to her mom, who held the majority of her loans. Things got serious.

Ami:  So, she started kind of panicking, because if I were to drop out, that means that all of my loans would be due within that six-month period. I wouldn't have any sort of deferment. I wouldn't have a job to start paying the loans. And so quitting wasn't an option, and she kind of talked me into at least getting the degree and trying to do the portfolio show, making my portfolio as good as possible to try to get a job that way because the school also touted that they had a portfolio show where employers would come and see students’ work and then hire them from the portfolio show.

There was a portfolio show that Ami said could have really helped her. As far as she knows, no employers attended the show. She didn’t get a single job lead there.

Ami:  Our portfolio show basically consisted of other students coming to see our work and instructors coming to see our work. And I spent about $750 on materials, so I printed out business cards, resumes, giveaways to give to prospective employers.

Remember how the recruiter told Ami she’d land a job? Other Art Institute students were told the same thing—that the programs were so good that even up to 95 percent of grads got jobs after they finished.

But there were documents from another lawsuit against EDMC. They’re also included in the 2015 whistleblower settlement. They indicate the company maintained the company maintained two sets of job placement stats. First, there was one for the accrediting agency. Then there was another with even higher percentages that was given to potential students.

And those high numbers? They were created by counting graduates working in jobs they didn’t need the degree for—places like Walmart or McDonald’s.

As for Ami, she said that when she graduated, she felt betrayed and unsupported. Especially when she was advised to look on Monsterjobs.com and Craigslist.

Other students have reported a lack of job placement assistance after graduation and even while in school.

Six years after she graduated, Ami’s not working at all, aside from a few small jobs as a background extra for TV shows.

Sara Goldrick-Rab says that for-profit colleges are a particular problem spot.

Goldrick-Rab: There are two issues. The first is the prices that the for-profit colleges set, which are evidently driven in large part by the availability of loans. They're maximizing the amount of money they can get people to pay, because they can take it as profits for their shareholders. And then the second issue is that the for-profit colleges and universities really seek out and enroll people who come from very economically vulnerable backgrounds. They’ve even been known to go and try and enroll homeless students, for example. So, they're enrolling people who are going to have trouble repaying, even if they finish their degrees.

Indeed, Pro Publica recently reported that troubled for-profit chain Corinthian Colleges targeted homeless people for enrollment, promising them strong future job prospects. Instead, many dropped out—leaving them with debt and in a worse financial position than when they began.

Ami’s now an activist on the issue of student loans, and she has her own thoughts about many players in the for-profit college sector.

Ami:  Basically, they preyed on low-income people. They preyed on first-generation college students, minorities, single mothers, people that didn't really understand the college process as fully as people who weren't first generation, people who wanted to better their lives, basically. And we were all shown, you know, falsified placement statistics and mislead during recruitment. All of us kind of discussed these pain points that the recruiters would use. And basically what it was was, if a student has a vulnerability, the recruiter would try to hone in on that vulnerability, and poke it, and manipulate you into signing up.
So, in my personal case, because I was working and I wanted to better my life, when I told them that, it was all of a sudden, “Oh, well, you want to better your life, right?” When we would try to be like, well, we want to discuss this. We need to think about it and then to my mom, they were telling her, well, you want your daughter to succeed, right? You want her to have a better life. You don't want her to have to work hard in all sorts of weather. Just basically really playing on your emotions and trying to manipulate you into believing that this college is going to be a good decision that's going to better your life. And for none of us, none of us had that be the case.

There’s a reputational issue too. Here’s Sara Goldrick-Rab again.

Goldrick-Rab: There's one other issue, actually, which is that the research shows that the value of these degrees is not as strong as one might wish that it were. It's not necessarily clear that they're making any money off of even having these degrees. So, students graduating from for-profit colleges are at high risk of having a lot of debt and of not being able to repay that debt.

For many of Ami’s classmates, it seems like this is the case. Their degrees just aren’t worth as much they thought they would be.

Ami: But there's people that graduated that have been told, like, you would actually, you know, probably get an interview if you took the art institutes off of your resume. So, students that graduated, they took the Art Institute off of their resume, and, lo and behold, they ended up getting interviews and getting jobs once they took it off and just let their portfolio speak for itself.

We reached out to the Art Institutes several times for comment about all of these claims. They never responded.

Chapter 4: “When Student Loans Get Rough”

Rosette: I started getting a lot of calls. I made my first payment on time, and then the second payment, I had tried to get in contact with them saying, like, you know, the original consolidation deal I had was about to come through in a couple days, and it didn't end up coming through. And so, for I think about three weeks, I got about 10 phone calls a day.

The student loan repayment process is enormously confusing. Rosette knew this and was trying to consolidate her loans. She told Sallie Mae that she was in the process of applying and waiting to hear back from loan consolidation companies.

But she said Sallie Mae wouldn’t stop calling her.

Rosette: After calling them after the first week and asking for them to stop, they continued to call me 10 times a day. After that, and I called again, they continued to call me 10 times a day. And then, they called my parents, which is really where I drew the line. Because my mother called me and she said is everything okay? Like, is there a problem? Are we in trouble? Like, what's going on? And that's when I got really upset because, you know, my parents have no illusions about my debt, but it really, every day that they're still a cosigner on those loans, it's something I think about. Like, what if I die? Then, they're screwed. There's no way they can pay them back, and they would have to.

Federal law permits student loan servicers to call multiple times, even if someone’s asked them to stop calling. And they call—a lot. Take Navient, another student loan servicer. If someone defaults, it’s reported that it’ll try to reach somebody between 230 and 300 times in the year leading up to it. Ninety percent of those borrowers never respond.

When we looked on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s consumer complaint section, we quickly found more than 200 of complaints about Sallie Mae filed since last year alone. Many of these were reports of constant calls—every hour, on the hour, asking for money.

Part of the problem? The repayment situation for student loans is a mess. Different types of loans come with different conditions. Information is disorganized and hard to access. Private loan servicers muddy the waters further because they each have their own protocols and ways of doing things.

It’s not quite like this in other countries. In Australia for example, if you borrow money from the government to attend college, the government determines the amount of repayment based on your income. They then automatically deduct it from your paycheck, the same way they deduct taxes.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, the system is more complicated. Ami found that out real quick. She said she was also being called multiple times a day, just like Rosette. And her relatives were called too.

Ami:  Apparently, they told my grandma, who passed away last year, how much I owed, how much my loans were. I mean, she wasn't even on my loan documents as a cosigner or a reference for me. So, I'm not at all sure why they would reveal that sort of thing to her. But they were basically, like, harassing her, like, “We need to get in touch with your granddaughter,” and my phone number and all sorts of, you know, details so that they could try to contact me from her, even though they already had my number, because they were calling me 10 times a day, as well.

Ami says this was Sallie Mae. But when we reached out to it, it claimed it didn’t have a record of Ami. So what’s going on? This gets complicated. It seems that Ami’s loans—and all of her records—are now being handled by Navient. Navient was part of Sallie Mae but was spun off into its own company in 2014.

We reached out to it, but it wrote back, saying that consumer financial privacy rules don’t allow financial institutions to discuss customers without a signed release.

And as it turns out, Ami’s grandmother was a reference—for Ami’s mother’s loans. What that means is any lender can give her a call. In fact, lenders and servicers can call others to find a debtor. But what they can’t do is disclose how much that debtor owes, unless they are a cosigner, or unless the debtor has given permission.

Unfortunately, we can’t call Ami’s grandma for confirmation.

When we reached out to Navient for a response about its policies in general, a representative wrote back to us, saying, “We discuss balances/loan information with the borrower or those authorized by the borrower as account eligible. When we are unable to reach a federal loan borrower we contact the references they provided in an attempt to locate them.”

As for Sallie Mae, it says, “We reach out to borrowers and cosigners if they happen to fall behind on payments. That said, 98 percent of our customers are successfully managing their student loans and less than two percent default annually.”

Ami says she started to become even more depressed, anxious, and withdrawn.

Ami: I didn't really do as much stuff out of the house, just because I was, like, ashamed. And I know my family knows, like, that I have no money, and I'm kind of, I felt like a bum. So, I mean, that was really hard—just feeling that stigmatization and, like, knowing that my family now knows all these personal details that I wasn't trying to reveal to everybody—definitely got really stressful.

So why was Ami getting all these phone calls?  When Ami got her first student loan bill six months after graduation, she couldn’t pay it. So she put herself into something called forbearance.

That’s a temporary measure for people facing financial issues. You can stop or reduce the amount you’re paying for a limited period of time. But it’s no freebie—the longer you delay, the more interest charges pile up and the more money ultimately needs to be paid back.

About 40 percent of people with student loans are not currently making payments on them.

And going into forbearance wasn’t exactly an easy process, at least for Ami.

Ami: So, I was sending them documents and faxing them documents, and they kept on allegedly not receiving my documents. So, as that's going on, my bill keeps on getting higher, my interest keeps accruing, and I'm not in forbearance yet, because they kept on losing my documents allegedly, even though I had fax confirmations saying that they went through.

This is an incredibly common scenario. Many borrowers have claimed that student loan servicers often overcharge them, misapply payments, and even lose their documents—making it impossible to deal with their loans.

We asked Navient about these claims, but its representative wrote back saying that it doesn’t see a trend of loan servicers misplacing forbearance documents. A Navient spokesperson offered the following: “We monitor customer feedback and complaints, reviewing our practices and results to learn how we can improve customer experience and produce better outcomes for borrowers. Only a fraction of 1 percent of customers submit a complaint.”

We also reached out to Sallie Mae as well to discuss forbearance issues, but at the time of this recording, it did not respond to our questions on this particular topic.

Many people aren’t trying to skip out on their loans. They’re in desperate straits—like Ami, who’s still in forbearance.

Ami:  I’m never going to get out from the weight of these loans. I'm never going to be viable, you know, and have a good job. I'm never going to, you know, make anything of my life. I just felt like I was completely alone. I felt isolated. You know, you see your friends, who went to state colleges, who are, you know, buying homes and seem to be really just doing very well for themselves, and then you're sitting there, like, oh, yeah, I'm not making any money, and getting public assistance. And it just was really depressing.

Today, Ami receives food and medical assistance from the government for her daughter.

Chapter 5: “So Why Should You Care?”

No surprise, some groups in our society are more impacted by student loans than others. Women are more likely to attend college than men. But women are also disproportionately more likely to take on loans compared to male peers who also attend.

African Americans, too. More than 40 percent of African American families had student loan debt in 2013. The comparable number for white families is 28—that’s according to the Urban Institute.

Obviously student loans have a huge impact on people’s financial lives, and also their personal lives. So why don’t people simply walk away and file for bankruptcy?

Well, that presents a problem.

Beginning in the 1970s, Congress slowly but surely took away the right to declare bankruptcy and discharge student loans. Today it is all but impossible to walk away from these loans unless you are in the most dire of circumstances. It’s something called  “undue hardship”—a complicated and all but impossible standard to meet.

The result? Even your Social Security check can be garnished for payment of student loans.

So families find themselves paying, and paying—trapped in a cycle of debt. Like Ami’s mom.

Ami: She gets really anxious about it. It's difficult for her to talk about it, so she just kind of just pays it and then keeps it to herself. So, she chooses to not talk about it. She's just so anxious and depressed about the amount that it is, and just very angry at the fact that, you know, she signed off on an education that was worthless.

You might be thinking, Well, my student loans aren’t so bad. Or maybe you don’t have student loans at all—you and your parents were able to pay for college. Or you’ve paid off your loans. You’re wondering: How does this student loan crisis really affect me?

Think of it this way: Student loans suck up money that could go to other things. And they distort people’s lives in a way that affects all of our personal economies.

Some advocacy groups even argue the student loan crisis is impacting the rate of entrepreneurship, and starting small businesses. Many say that one reason people are hesitant to start or expand a business is because of the burden of their student loans.

Rosette: I just think continually of how hard my parents worked and how hard other people's parents worked and how they don't get the same thing, and it's not fair.

People with student loans are less likely to buy homes and less likely to have money saved for retirement. Student loans alter career trajectories—and choices. People enter higher paying professions, not because they want to, but because they need the money to pay the bills.

And as for Ami? She’s now looking into a job that doesn’t require a degree in the arts at all.

Helaine Olen: So, you're planning basically to apply for a job with the Post Office.
Ami: Yes.
Olen: OK. And delivering mail, like your mom?
Ami: Yes. I mean, at this point, I don't really see many options. I mean, it’s a stable career. You have benefits. You get paid time off. You get family leave. And it would pay way more than any job I've ever had, which, as a mother, that's kind of taking precedence over what my passions are.

So what can you do, now that you already have tons of loans?

First, know what kind of loans you have and what their interest rates are. Sounds basic, right? But actually, many people can't answer this question. According to the Brookings Institution, half of college freshman thought they borrowed less money than they did in 2014. And among all first-year students with federal loans, 28 percent said they had no federal debt, and 14 percent claimed they had no student debt at all.

It’s not hard to understand how that could happen, though. Financial award letters can be tricky read. They can say they’ll help you out with $40,000, but sometimes half of that is loans. That’s not always clear to the recipients, however.

Second, be wary if you seek outside help. According to a report by the National Consumer Law Center, the debt-relief industry is filled with companies that are almost always high-priced and fee-ridden services concerned about padding their bottom line at the expense of yours. These aren’t to be confused with reputable nonprofit debt counseling services, such as the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

Third, keep up the pressure on our government and make your voice heard. The high cost of higher education is finally on the political radar.

Just last month, the Obama administration forgave $171 million owed by former students of the bankrupt for-profit college Corinthian Colleges Inc.

And then, recently, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton announced she would push for free in-state college tuition for students coming from families earning less than $125,000 annually. That’s something many political analysts are saying wouldn’t have happened without millennial support for Bernie Sanders campaign for president.

Last, don’t beat yourself up. Hindsight is 20/20. Concentrate on moving forward with your life. And don’t let the anxiety off paying loans off ruin the satisfaction of doing what you love.

Rosette: Teaching, no matter where you do it, is exhausting. And I loved it. And I had this feeling of like, "I can never do anything else.”

Thank you for listening to this episode of the United States of Debt, a Slate Academy. Jennifer Lai is our producer. In this episode you heard music from Kai Engel and Chris Zabriskie and Sergey Cheremisinov. I’m Helaine Olen, and I hope you’ll join us next time. And remember, to sign up and hear more stories of debt in America, visit slate.com/debt.