At age 34, Janell Tryon owes $250,000 in student debt.
She only took out $150,000 of it — $100,000 for an undergraduate degree at New York University, and $50,000 for a Master’s Degree in public health.
The rest is all interest.
“For years, I couldn’t bring myself to look at the numbers and I felt completely out of control,” she told Insider. “The only way I could live with it was by paying a certain amount every month and not defaulting. I never felt like I could get a handle on it.”
In the 13 years since she graduated from NYU, Tryon has been making payments on her loans, while feeling unequipped to handle the debt load. After graduating, she made $23,000 a year as a manager at a bookstore cafe and was paying $700 a month on her loans — the same amount as her rent. After graduate school, she spent five years doing research for the San Francisco and New York City health departments, talking to residents about their experiences with addiction and homelessness. Now, she’s a full-time Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
During all this time, her monthly payments usually went toward interest, not the principal amount of the loan. It’s a vicious cycle, as the loan just keeps collecting more interest, which must be paid off that month.
Tryon’s story is similar to that of many Americans, 45 million of whom have student-loan debt — that’s one in eight, according to a NerdWallet analysis of May 2021 census data. Those between the ages 25 and 34 are the most likely to hold student-loan debt, and millennials owe an average of $40,000, according to data from a 2021 Experian study.
Since March 2020, the borrowers who owe the federal government haven’t been required to make student loan payments and haven’t been charged new interest, but the pressure is increasing for President Joe Biden to cancel some or all of that debt. Biden is reportedly gearing up to cancel $10,000 for those making under $150,000 per year, The Washington Post reported this week, although the typical borrower owes nearly three times that, according to an Experian study.
“A lot of these students are coming from families like mine, who didn’t know how to navigate student debt because it’s its own beast,” Tryon told Insider.
‘It’s a really insidious process’
Like many Americans, Tryon owes a mix of private and federal debt.
Her federal loans were managed by Navient before Aidvantage took over their portfolio. Tryon’s private debt is managed by banks and other lending groups, and all of her loans have a range of interest rates between 4.5% and 11.5%.
In January, Navient — formerly known as Sallie Mae — settled a lawsuit that claimed the company pushed student-loan borrowers into more debt instead of helping them establish affordable repayment plans. Navient denied any claims of wrongdoing in the agreement but agreed to cancel $1.7 billion in student loan debt for 66,000 borrowers out of the $73 billion in student loans it services.
Tryon’s debt wasn’t eligible. To qualify, borrowers must have had seven consecutive months of delinquent payments or have attended for-profit schools.
Tryon called the settlement “a major distraction,” from all the people still stuck with their debt.
She thought that by going to college, she would eventually make enough money to keep up with the debt she took on.
She said that she spent years trying to negotiate a payment plan with Navient and eventually went into forbearance, which means that she paused payments on her initial loan while only paying interest. With this setup, a borrower typically ends up paying more in the long run.
“It was never about ‘how much can we make this person pay that is reasonable for what she makes?'” she said. “It was, ‘how much can we lower the rate so that she can make an interest-based payment, not a principle-based payment?'”
That was one of the claims of the Navient lawsuit — in a statement, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said that the company “engaged in deceptive and abusive practices, targeted students who it knew would struggle to pay loans back, and placed an unfair burden on people trying to improve their lives through education.”
Student-loan expert Mark Kantrowitz, founder of privatestudentloans.guru, a free website about borrowing to pay for college, told Insider that he believes the most serious allegation in the lawsuit is that Navient distributed loans that would trap borrowers in a cycle of debt in order to profit off of interest.
Sallie Mae distributed “opportunity cost loans” before they were inherited by Navient, loans that “were made knowing that the majority of borrowers would be unable to repay the debt,” he said.
Navient has previously denied all claims and told Insider that they offer several different options for borrowers looking to pay down their loans.
“The company’s decision to resolve these matters, which were based on unfounded claims, allows us to avoid the additional burden, expense, time, and distraction to prevail in court,” said Navient’s Chief Legal Officer Mark Heleen. “Navient is and has been continually focused on helping student loan borrowers understand and select the right payment options to fit their needs. In fact, we’ve driven up income-driven repayment plan enrollment and driven down default rates, and every year, hundreds of thousands of borrowers we support successfully pay off their student loans.”
In the years since she’s graduated college, Tryon says that her debt has held her back from planning for the future. Since joining Debt Collective, a union for debtors, she said she’s met others like her who feel misled by lenders and schools.
“It’s taken me years to learn how manipulated I was by lenders,” she said. “It’s a really insidious process.”
Tryon added that although a college degree often represents financial mobility for people who grew up in low-income households, the resulting debt debilitates people for years.
“The system might want us to aspire to be in a different,” she said, “but if we’re in this debt, we’re so much worse off than our parents.”
Nemo me impune lacessit