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Student loan payments are about to restart. Can American families afford them?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Federal student loan payments have been on pause since March 2020. Well, that temporary relief is set to expire next week if President Biden declines to extend it.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Meanwhile, the administration has been taking other steps to ease the burden of student debt. It has forgiven billions of dollars' worth of federal student loans by enforcing the borrowers defense rule.

KELLY: And that's a rule that allows borrowers to ask the Department of Education to erase their student debt if their school lied to them, say, about job prospects or their likely salary.

SHAPIRO: Take the story of William Alexander of Jacksonville, Fla. He says when he applied for classes in 2015, his for-profit college made all kinds of promises.

WILLIAM ALEXANDER: The admissions advisor told me that there was guaranteed career waiting for me. They told me that my total tuition would be about $8,000, and instead it turned out to be close to 50,000.

KELLY: He struggled to make his payments, so he filed a borrower defense claim. Then, last week, he got notice that the entire balance of his loans was being forgiven, freeing up an extra 3- to $400 a month.

ALEXANDER: I was blown away. I wasn't expecting this at all so - put a huge smile on my face (laughter), of course, when I got it. And, you know, I ran into the house telling everyone, hey; my student loans are getting cancelled, my student loans are getting cancelled. So yeah, I'm happy as a pig in mud (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Alexander says the news is a life-changing. He and his wife are looking at houses now, and he feels like he'll have more time to volunteer in his community.

KELLY: Many more borrowers, though, are still waiting on relief, and we asked a few of them to share their stories.

SHAPIRO: Some are still paying off student debt from decades ago as their own children reach college age. Others are already working several jobs to offset the rising cost of living, and the restart in monthly payments will squeeze their budgets even more.

JAYSON DOUGLAS: I'm Jayson Douglas, and I live in Commerce, Texas. I am 29. My monthly payments are at $835 a month. The pause was definitely helpful, but because of inflation, I did have to pick up a couple of other occupations, especially with rent rising. I was a Lyft driver for some time, but I also started working at another part-time job. And I really think that our government needs to cancel student loans altogether, at least cancel the interest and go back to the original borrowing principal.

PARI: I'm Pari, and I live in Ohio. I'm 52. I have 20-years-old student loans for a certification in order to have a career as a paralegal. The amount that I currently owe on that loan is more than I originally took out 20 years ago. Secondly, I have Parent PLUS loans that total almost $200,000 for putting two of my children through college. Those two totaled $700 a month. The added layer for me is I'm a Black woman, and America has made it very clear that they really don't feel Black people all that much. The weight of the student loans bears on every other decision that I tried to make, you know, home ownership and all of that. The way that the compound interest is just crippling. It just really feels like robbery, and I'm hoping that this nightmare ends.

CAROL OLDHAM: I'm Carol Oldham, Jamaica Plain, 51. I still owe somewhere between 12 and 15,000, and my husband - 15,000 as well. That's about 600 a month. And, you know, of course, part of it is that you're paying mostly interest. My husband is chair of his department. He's an economics professor. I'm a regional manager. And yet it's still a stretch to pay these each month in addition to our mortgage. And, of course, one of the things about hitting 50 is all of a sudden it's like, oh, now I need glasses. And everything feels really expensive right now. Setting our society up that only wealthy people can go to school or graduate school - if that's the outcome, I think we'll all be sorry and that folks just aren't maybe thinking in the long run.

SHAPIRO: That was Carol Oldham in Massachusetts, Peri in Ohio, who didn't share her last name for privacy reasons, and Jayson Douglas in Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.