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Faces of Student Loan Debt


Photos by PETER van AGTMAEL/MAGNUM PHOTOS

The stories of young Americans struggling to get out from under the weight of student debt.

I feel I kind of ruined my life by going to college; I can't plan for an actual future.

JACKIE KROWEN, 32
In Debt: $152,000
JACKIE KROWEN, 32
Lane Community College, Portland State University, University of Rochester
Student Loans: $128,000
Remaining Balance: $152,000
Monthly Payment: $1,200
Occupation: Nurse

When she was 19, Jackie Krowen took out her first student loan to attend a community college in Oregon. She borrowed more when she transferred to Portland State University, and still more for nursing school at the University of Rochester in New York.


“You didn’t have to meet with anybody,” she says. “You just clicked some buttons on the computer and you had a huge check.”


When she finished school in 2011, she was $128,000 in debt. Today, with a good job as a nurse, she still can’t make a dent.


Looking back, Krowen realizes she had no idea what she was doing when she took out her loans. Her parents, she says, encouraged her to borrow because the interest rate was low. Like many young borrowers, she didn’t know how much interest could accrue. “It didn’t make sense to me,” she says.


Now she understands. Her balance is currently $24,000 more than what she borrowed.


Buying a house isn’t an option, she says, and the idea of having a family seems financially impossible. She fears it will be that way for the rest of her life.

To make sure debt collectors got paid, they said they would definitely take away [my father’s pension]. They said they have every right.

VANESSA McCLURG, 29
In Debt: $73,000
VANESSA McCLURG, 29
University of North Texas
Student Loans: $67,000
Remaining Balance: $73,000
Monthly Payment: $522
Occupation: Auto Shop Service Manager

McClurg’s father, a retired U.S. Navy officer, co-signed her loans. Then illness disrupted her education. She was hospitalized with pneumonia as a sophomore and later contracted a staph infection: “Unbeknownst to me,” she says, “I didn’t have a good immune system.” After missing more than a year of classes, she dropped out in 2010.


McClurg moved to Utah and got a $9-an-hour job in an auto repair shop, and says she couldn’t afford to pay her loans for a few years. Then debt collectors “really came after me,” she says, threatening to sue her. Then they said they would go after her father as well because he had co-signed her loans.  “They would definitely take away his pension,” she says she was told. “They said they have every right.”  Finally, she says, “my 84-year-old grandfather gave me every dime he had” so that she could get her loans current.


McClurg says she now earns $32,000 per year, enough to pay $522 each month for the education she never finished.

You shouldn’t have to go to war to get a college education.

SAUL NEWTON, 28
In Debt: $23,000
SAUL NEWTON, 28
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
Original Student Loans: $10,000
Remaining Balance: $23,000
Occupation: Director, Wisconsin Veterans Chamber of Commerce

After two years of tuition hikes at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Newton’s student loan balance was already $10,000.


“I couldn’t afford it any more,” he says. In 2009, he dropped out and joined the Army, hoping one day to continue his education under the GI Bill, which he has done.


Several months later, he was in Afghanistan’s Arghandab River Valley, a private in the 4th Infantry Division. His unit’s worst day was when the battalion chaplain and four other soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in August 2010.


“My focus was on doing my job and staying alive,” he says. But he was careful never to forget to go and make his online student loan payment of $100 a month.


“It was kind of crazy” that a soldier in a war zone had to worry about his student loans, Newton says, but he believed that “if I didn’t pay my loans, my credit would be shot.”


Now he’s back home in Wisconsin, working as a veterans’ activist. “You shouldn’t have to go to war to get a college education,” he says. On the other hand, “starting your post-college life with tens of thousands of dollars in debt is a weight around your ankles,” he says. ”I can relate to that.”

One day I want to own a home and have a family but I will have to pay my student debt first.

MARVIN LOGAN JR., 24
In Debt: $78,000
MARVIN LOGAN JR., 24
Kent State University and Clark Atlanta University
Student Loans: $78,000
Monthly Payment Once He Graduates: $789
Occupation: Youth Counselor at a Foundation

As a star athlete at Warren G. Harding High School in Warren, Ohio, Marvin Logan Jr. never worried about how he’d pay for college.


Raised by a single dad who worked as an electrician, Logan was an All-American in track and field and played football. College recruiters courted him in both sports.


He went to Kent State University on a track scholarship but soon discovered he couldn’t afford it all. So he took out $5,500 in loans freshman year to help pay for living expenses and school supplies.


Then sophomore year, he lost his scholarship when injuries prevented him from competing. To pay for school, he took out more loans.


Marvin graduated in 2015 and now works at a nonprofit helping disadvantaged youth.


Because he is going to grad school full time at night, he’s added on to his overall debt.


Repayment starts when school ends.  


He says he has no regrets: “College has given me the opportunity to do what I love and make a difference.”

Debt is the first thing I factor in all of my decisions.

JESSIE SUREN, 28
In Debt: $90,000
JESSIE SUREN, 28
La Salle University
Student Loans: $72,000
Remaining Balance: $90,000
Monthly Payment: $900
Occupation: Sells Vacation Packages

Suren was raised by a single mom who worked in the restaurant business. She pushed Suren to get an education. “My mom wanted for me what she didn’t have,” says Suren, who did well in school and became the first in her immediate family to attend college. She knew she’d have to finance it herself. Her mother hired a consultant to help with the financial aid forms, at a cost of nearly $2,000, but that didn’t prepare Suren for the obligations she was taking on. Nor did her high school counselors, she says. “No one talked to me about whether I could afford college, how much it would cost or how interest would work. I knew nothing about money.”


Suren decided to go to La Salle University, a private Catholic school. Grant money and scholarships didn’t cover the $36,000 a year for tuition, fees, and room and board, so she took out the maximum she could in student loans. Her aunt co-signed a private loan and her mother took out a federal loan designed for parents.


By the time Suren graduated in 2010, she was already $72,000 in debt.


Most troubling for Suren is that servicers and debt collectors can go after her family, too. “If I were only responsible for my loans, I might not pay and just say forget it,” she says. “But because this impacts my mom and aunt, I won’t do that.”  With such a high monthly payment, she wonders if she will ever be able to buy a house or start a family.

Calling me eight times a day.

DANIELLE ALUOTTO, 30
In Debt: $90,000
DANIELLE ALUOTTO, 30
University of New Orleans
Student Loans: $82,000
Remaining Balance: $90,000
Monthly Payment: $1,200
Occupation: Pharmacy Technician

When her friends go out for drinks after work, Aluotto has to beg off. By the time she makes her $1,200 monthly loan payment, she’s all but broke.


The pharmacy technician says she received no useful advice from student financial aid counselors when she took out loans for college. Six years after graduation, the loans continue to dominate her life.


“I have to methodically calculate my financial situation at all times,” she says. “I know every penny in my account.”


Aluotto says she paid her loans on time through automatic withdrawal from her bank account. But loan collectors began phoning her day and night a few years ago, telling her that her private loans were in arrears and demanding payment.


She says she explained that the loan was current, but “it was like arguing with a brick wall.”


“They just think a 45-minute conversation in the middle of the day is convenient,” she says. She filed a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.


In its response to the CFPB, Sallie Mae admitted to internal systems errors and apologized, and the calls stopped, if not the pressure to repay.


“I feel the weight of my student loans every day,” Aluotto says.

I was sued for complaining.

BRANDON HILL, 31
In Debt: About $140,000
BRANDON HILL, 31
Academy of Art University
Student Loans: About $140,000
Occupation: Graphic Designer

Hill took out loans to study video animation. Unable to find work as an animator, he got a job as a graphic artist, and for a while made a $700 monthly loan payment.


But Hill was laid off in 2013 and fell behind on his loans. Collectors began calling “five times a day” demanding payment, he says. Some calls came at 5 a.m., he says.


To one collector, Hill says he tried to explain that he was jobless in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Rent on his one-bedroom apartment was $1,600 per month.


“This guy was yelling and screaming in my ear, ‘Don’t worry about those other payments, you need to pay this right now,’ ” he says.


Hill complained to state regulators. The calls stopped. But then Sallie Mae and Navient Credit Finance sued Hill for immediate repayment of a combined $73,000 in student loans, records show.


His lawyer is negotiating a settlement.


In a letter to the California attorney general’s office, Sallie Mae wrote that the company had “acted appropriately” in contacting Hill. The flurry of 5 a.m. calls occurred because Hill’s cell phone has a Virginia area code, so the collectors assumed he was on the East Coast, a Sallie Mae official wrote.

I worked so hard not to be in this situation right now. I sacrificed so much to go to school and get an education.

ANITA BREWER, 33
In Debt: $160,000
ANITA BREWER, 33
American InterContinental University
Student Loans: $60,000
Remaining Balance: $160,000
Occupation: Teacher's Aide

Brewer says she borrowed $60,000 to study fashion design and merchandising at the for-profit university, which became a magnet for complaints over poor academic quality, low graduation rates, a high concentration of student debt, and other issues. And the LA campus she attended has since closed.


Brewer says she tried to transfer, but other colleges would not accept her credits. Between periods of unemployment, she has worked at a series of low-paying jobs, most recently as a teacher’s aide. She hasn’t kept up with her loan payments, and the interest has ballooned.


Brewer was a plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against the Career Education Corporation, AIU’s parent company. The lawsuit was settled, and the company agreed to pay $12.25 million to those students involved in the suit. Brewer’s share of the settlement was $189.

I could have gone to community college and gotten the same credentials for a lot less money.

MICHELLE BESSETTE, 33
In Debt: $58,000
MICHELLE BESSETTE, 33
California State University, Los Angeles
Student Loans: $58,000
Expected Monthly Payment: About $500
Occupation: Respiratory Therapist

Michelle Bessette didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life, so after high school she took some courses at a local community college and tried a variety of jobs, from bartending to retail sales and a stint as a claims adjustor. At 26, she says she realized, “I wanted to do something that was more meaningful and I wanted to make more money.


So she borrowed $28,000 and enrolled in a two-year respiratory therapy program at American Career College, a for-profit school. “I was told by the school that we’d get paid $30 an hour right out of the gate. I figured I could afford the payments,” she says.


Her first job at a hospital in Anaheim (which she holds to this day) paid $18 an hour to start. Now she has gone back to school for a degree in communication disorders and has borrowed some $30,000 more.


She now wishes she had stayed in community college for as long as possible because the same degree would have been a fraction of the cost. “I talk to people all the time about my experience and tell them to look at all of their options,” Bessette says. “Part of me feels that it’s my fault. I didn’t do enough research. But I also feel there is no education about this.”


Her loan payments won’t begin until after she graduates in December, Bessette says, but already, “My fiancé is quite stressed about it. My debt is a constant conversation with my family.”