By Jason Houle and Fenaba R. Addo

October 12, 2022

In November 2015, The New York Times published an op-ed on student-loan debt that focused on the plight of Liz Kelley, a college graduate, mother of four, and high-school teacher who owed a whopping $410,000 in federal student loans. In 2017, USA Today profiled Melissa Cefalu and her husband, Andrew, two white-collar professionals saddled with $365,000 in debt. One year later, the newspaper profiled Jodi Meyers, whose $60,000 in student debt kept her dreams of homeownership on hold. The Chicago Sun-Times highlighted Tiela Halpin, who said she “expects to die” before repaying her $80,000 debt, as well as Amanda Spizzirri, a four-year-college graduate with $90,000 in debt who is struggling to repay her loans while working as a barista and a server.

Such stories, while powerful, newsworthy, and indicative of real economic pain, are outliers. They misrepresent the burden of debt and its implications for both current and former college students in this country. Student-loan experts would be quick to point out the various ways that these cherry-picked examples of young people are not representative of, or indicative of, a student-loan debt crisis.

First, they would note that these large student-debt figures are not representative of the average borrower — very few students have debt burdens this high. In 2018, 56 percent of borrowers held less than $20,000, 35 percent held less than $10,000, while 33 percent of the outstanding federal education-loan debt was held by the 6 percent of borrowers owing more than $100,000. They would also note that those who do have six-figure debt loads have little difficulty paying it off. We know, for example, that people with $100,000 or more in student debt tend to be doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who accumulated debt in graduate school, but their lucrative occupations make it relatively easy for them to pay down that debt. In fact, those who default on their loans are far more likely to have relatively small amounts of debt — think $1,000 or $2,000 — than large amounts of debt. They might also note that all the people mentioned above are four-year-college graduates (or more), who tend to struggle less with debt than those who do not complete college.

But what policy wonks and scholars might fail to recognize is that the young adults profiled in those newspapers are all white Americans.