Millennials struggle under the burden of student loan debt: "I had a panic attack"

Millennials struggle with student loan debt

Last Updated Apr 30, 2019 10:25 PM EDT

There's a growing debate in the 2020 presidential campaign over student loan forgiveness, and proposals to relieve graduates in debt. Borrowers nationwide owe a total of $1.5 trillion in federal student loan debt.
 
Taylor Smith's a millennial on the move in Houston. But at 25, she has put off buying a house, getting married and starting a family.
 
"If you want a good job, you have to go to college. But nobody talks about the price," Smith said.
 
To pay for her education at Texas A&M University, Smith worked full-time throughout college. She also cobbled together 11 student loans.
 
"I probably graduated with about $53,000 in student debt," Smith said. "That number hit me for the first time my last semester of college. And it was the first time I saw the full balance. And I had a panic attack immediately."
 
After graduation, she couldn't afford the monthly minimum payment. She had to quit her first dream job registering voters in Colorado with the nonpartisan New Era Colorado Foundation.  

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Taylor Smith CBS News

"I was struggling to buy groceries. I was donating plasma and doing psychological studies just to get a few extra dollars," Smith said. "That was a big reality check, realizing this bill that I have is what's gonna hold me back."
 
Currently, 43 million Americans have student debt. The average household with student debt owes almost $48,000 and 5.2 million borrowers are in default.
 
Meanwhile, college costs keep rising. At Ohio State, a public university, in-state students pay $27,000 a year. Stanford University costs $74,000.
 
"We're telling individuals to just take on the debt, it's worth it. And the larger ramifications to their lives and our society are truly unknown," said Seth Frotman, the executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center, a non-profit watchdog. "The student debt crisis is here. With no end in sight and absolutely zero plan to tackle this at the federal level."
 
Teenagers with no credit history and no guaranteed job routinely borrow tens of thousands of dollars through loans guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Education.
 
"The federal government will always get their money," Frotman said. "We don't give student loan borrowers a second chance in bankruptcy. We let their wages be garnished. We even let their Social Security benefits be seized." 

Month by month, Smith chips away at her college debt but she still owes $49,000.
 
"The moment you get an acceptance letter from college, that's really the moment you start taking on this debt," Smith said.

A generation in debt

Millennials share anxiety over student loan debt

Smith is far from alone. So CBS News asked millennials to share their stories. Samer Hassan, 28, currently has $22,000 in student debt.

"By the time I graduate university, that will be $80,000," Hassan said. "This is going to turn into an $800 bill every month. That's a car note. That's a home mortgage. That's childcare."

Michael Perles, 27, said he is about $134,000 in debt. Ky'Lend Adams, 23, owes $90,000. Allie Truitt has around $56,000 in debt.

"When I lost my job when the recession hit, I asked for help. I asked if there was any way I could lower my monthly payments. The only thing they offered me was deferment with a lifetime maximum of nine months," Truitt said.

Elizabeth Chandry owes more than $108,000.

"It prevents me from a lot of things. Getting a dog, buying a house and right now it is making it extremely hard for me to change careers," she said.

They all described the anxiety they feel about how their loans will impact the rest of their life.
 
"If I decided to get a car, if I decide to own a home, these student loans are a part of my credit score and a part of my identity for the rest of my life," Adams said.

The issues related to student debt are so wide-ranging, groups have popped up to respond. Young Invincibles and Student Debt Crisis have been working to increase awareness on the impacts of debt.

  • Mark Strassmann
    Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.