Nearly one in five Kentucky adults has federal student loan debt. For these 616,000 Kentuckians and our state as a whole, debt cancellation, as is currently being considered by the Biden Administration, would be a significant boon. But you don’t have to take our word for it. Kentuckians with student debt from across the state and walks of life recently shared their stories with us about what cancellation would mean for them.
Kentucky student loan borrowers experience “crippling” financial stress
KyPolicy’s research on student debt in Kentucky showed that while the median amount owed is around $18,000, more than 125,000 Kentucky residents owe more than $50,000, contributing to the much higher average student loan amount of about $33,300. Prior to repayments being paused during the pandemic, the state’s student loan default rate was rising, indicating repayment stress for borrowers. Among a sample of recent public university and community college students in Kentucky, those with student loan debt (more than half the sample) had few economic resources with which to pay it back; more than half had incomes in 2020 under $30,000, with a quarter more between $30,000 and $48,000. Additionally, a large share with student debt left school without earning a degree or credential.
Many Kentuckians we heard from described the stress of having an overwhelming amount of student debt. In response to the question “What is your experience with student loan debt?,” two individuals responded with just one word: “Crippling.” Others described their experience as overwhelming, debilitating, exhausting, oppressive, feeling trapped, anxiety inducing and frustrating. Respondents described their balances growing due to interest even as payments are made, and not being able to afford even a payment of a couple hundred dollars without working multiple jobs.
Individual respondents’ situations ranged from having successfully paid off loans or having them forgiven through a special federal program, to having $150,000 of debt for physical therapy school and nearly $200,000 in debt for a Kentucky social worker. We heard from public defenders, educators, health care providers, and other individuals unable to make student loan payments as all of their paychecks go toward bills and caring for children.
I currently owe over $100,000. It has been a crippling debt my entire adult life. I’m now 54 and will never pay it off before I die.
– Stephanie, Garrard County
In 2013, I was in default with my undergraduate student loans. I was also employed as contractor making $17,000 a year. I spent a lot of time talking to people from my loan handler to negotiate a lower payment plan that I could handle. Still, to make enough money to follow this plan, I had to go sell plasma two days a week for almost a year to get out of default. I still have the scars on both arms from the repeated needle insertions.
– Drew, Fayette County
I am now a fulltime working physical therapist who had to pay for all of my school out of pocket and with student loans. I am sadly $150,000++ in student loan debt with federal and private loans. If I only knew then what I know now I would have never went to PT school unless I had a trust fund for my education … I have paid my private loans off almost 3 times over and still paying over 10+ years later because of the bank’s ludicrous terms and interest … It’s like a bad car loan but soooo much worse!
Mine is income based, but it doesn’t take ANYTHING else into consideration (rent, car payment, insurance, FOOD)…after Covid and with inflation, I can’t do it.
– Teresa, Fayette County
My experience with student loan debt is depression, feelings of helplessness, and restriction.
– Shayla, Jefferson County
It has been a hardship that I haven’t been able to shake. It’s been over 20 years since I graduated and I’m STILL paying on my student loans!!! Feels like I’ll never get them paid off.
– Manuel, Jefferson County
I was responsible for paying for my own education while I supported myself. No help from my parents or anyone else. I obtained my Bachelor’s and Master’s degree, racking up almost $200,000 in debt. Now, I work for the state as a child protection social worker and don’t make enough money to be able to pay my bills, save for retirement, and pay for student loans. It’s a battle to have any type of life.
– Emily, Madison County
I am $8,000 in debt, and my income unfortunately doesn’t allow the monthly payments without me being in a hard spot. This debt didn’t even allow me to complete my degree. I need to keep going but can’t afford to go further in debt.
– Amanda, Laurel County
As a black woman, I was so excited to be able to go to college as I am a first generation to do so. Although I had my tuition covered, not having income was a big hardship on my family of four (husband and two young children at the time), so we opted to take the nearly $10k a year in student loans to take the edge off or our expenses. While I made every effort to pay back my student loan debt after the initial 3 years of grace/forbearance, due to work in the non-profit/social service sector over the past 11 years, I have barely made enough money to cover my $40K student debt, which is now $50k due to interest. … In 2018 I was diagnosed with a neurological disorder and had to change careers, now I’m working but at a huge deficit and I’m worried I may not be able to maintain my employment now. I am dreading this forbearance period being lifted and hoping with all I have that my application for loan forgiveness will finally be approved and my debt forgiven.
– Dawn, Fayette County
I don’t come from a family who has generational wealth; our family moved here as refugees and we have contributed greatly to this country through public service and in other ways. I was able to get scholarships for undergrad which left me with about $7,000 in student loan debt but there was no scholarship assistance available for my graduate program and that education put me in the 6 figures in loans. All of my loans are federal loans. I was encouraged to pursue higher education but now I feel like I’m being punished because I couldn’t afford that education without help.
– Celine, Jefferson County
Student loan cancellation would lead to greater economic stability
In response to the question, “What would federal student loan forgiveness mean for you?,” we heard from Kentuckians across the state about the increased economic stability that would result. By having their student debt load eliminated or at least reduced, these Kentuckians would be able to save money to purchase a home, improve their credit, start a family, put money in a retirement account and even go back to school to finish a degree. Numerous Kentuckians described the impact student loan forgiveness would have on their ability to provide better support and care for family members, including aging parents as well as children.
It would be a huge psychological relief. It would also allow me to accelerate my savings plan. I’m trying to put away enough money to afford a house (starter home, nothing fancy).
– Dexter, Jefferson County
Federal student loan forgiveness would mean a lifetime of greater freedom of choice. Our goals are not extraordinary — having a family, a home to call our own, and a chance to retire someday — but they have sat on the horizon just out of reach for several years now. We are not alone in working towards our dreams, only to see the goalposts moved back by inflation, cost of living increases, and the pandemic. I believe that forgiving federal student loan debt will allow our Commonwealth to flourish, and sustain economic success, by giving young Kentuckians opportunities to create the life they wish to live.
– Anonymous, McCracken County
I could begin working towards starting a family. I would love to be able to foster LGBT+ children/teens, but because of the extreme student loan debt, I fear that I’ll never be able to afford to take care of foster children, let alone children of my own.
– Clint, Jefferson County
Freedom. Not having to worry about this debt when I’m trying to start a family.
– Cathy, Nelson County
After raising two children as a single parent, I am now single-handedly caring for my elderly parents, providing financial support and ensuring that their twilight years are happy and healthy. My mom earns so little from social security that she doesn’t make enough to cover the cost of her medicine; together, my parents’ income barely covers the basic cost of living. Originally, I obtained student loans for a Master’s degree that was required of all teachers in Kentucky. I also obtained student loans in an attempt to maximize my earnings as a single parent by furthering my education, erroneously thinking that more education would result in higher pay. If my loans were forgiven, the financial stress I’m under would be alleviated, my credit score would improve significantly, and I could plan for a more secure financial future for myself when I am my parents’ age.
– Stephanie, Garrard County
Student loan forgiveness would mean that I would actually be able to save money and be able to retire. I would have money to live more than paycheck to paycheck.
– Emily, Madison County
Student loan forgiveness would be life changing. I owe $45,000+. It would take such a burden off of my shoulders. I frequently feel like a failure because I don’t use my degree for my career and I can’t afford to make payments.
– Breanna, Fayette County
Mainly, I would be able to contribute to my son’s college education, and hopefully prevent him from having to borrow as much as he is having to borrow now. It would also allow me to make some medical choices I have had to put off because of the cost, as well as refinance my house, pay off other debts, do a couple major car repairs.
– Kate, Franklin County
It would mean an additional $12,000 a year stays in my household. It would mean I can pay my mortgage off faster. It would mean I’d be better financially prepared to take care of my aging mother (she’s 71).
– Drew, Fayette County
I would be able to pay for other things like getting a therapist which would allow me to function better in other areas of my life. I could use those student loan payments to save for a down payment on a house. I have also considered entrepreneurship but I’ve been held back by student loans.
– Celine, Jefferson County
President Biden should act immediately to cancel student debt as robustly and accessibly as possible
As the Biden administration continues to consider a plan for student loan forgiveness, stories of real people with student debt, like the Kentuckians we’ve quoted here, speak to what an important opportunity it is and the need for debt cancellation to be as robust and accessible as possible.
Note: Stories about student loan debt cancellation were collected via a Google Form and may appear slightly edited for spelling, punctuation and length.