Courtesy of Lisa Sass
- Lisa Sass, 31, took out $50,000 in private student loans to pay for college.
- After 10 years, Sass owes almost double what she borrowed and can’t afford monthly payments.
- She wishes private student loans could be included in the Biden student-loan debt relief program.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Lisa Sass, a 31-year-old senior account executive from the Greater Phoenix area in Arizona, about her student-loan debt. It’s been edited for length and clarity.
At 31 years old, I never thought I’d be nearly $100,000 in debt — and that’s just for student loans. I left Northern Arizona University more than a decade ago, before I could officially graduate in 2013. Since then, my student-loan debt has more than doubled.
I currently work full-time as a senior account executive at a brand-marketing and public-relations company, where I make $70,000 a year. Since I couldn’t afford the original $1,000 monthly payment, I pay $500 a month toward my loans. Paying half allows me to afford living expenses and other bills, but my student-loan payments only cover the interest.
As a high-school student, I didn’t understand the impact these loans would have on me and my family for the rest of my life
I was the first person in my family to go to college, and despite receiving a small scholarship from NAU, I still needed to find a way to pay for school, especially as an out-of-state student. So my parents and I took some classes to better understand Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) loans in 2009.
We attended two workshops that took place at night. We went to my high-school library with about 15 other students and their families and were walked through the application process. It didn’t really make an impact on me, especially as a 17-year-old just wanting to get out of my hometown. I didn’t truly understand the implications or the severity of the loans, but I think my parents found them informative.
Halfway through college, I ended up losing my scholarship — I’d been put on academic probation — and needed to find another way to pay the deficit. In addition to federal loans (which are now paid off, thanks to my parents), I turned to private options.
I was still uneducated about how loans worked, but desperate to accomplish my goal and make my family proud. I asked my dad and my grandfather to cosign the loans, reassuring them I’d work hard so I could find a good-paying job after graduation.
They reluctantly agreed, and I took out my first private loan in August 2011 for $26,000 with a 13% variable interest rate. The next year I borrowed $27,500 with a 12% fixed interest rate with my grandpa as the cosigner.
After my fourth year at NAU, I accepted 2 unpaid summer internships and worked part time as a restaurant server to save money
The two internships were the last 10 credits I needed to officially graduate. At the time, I was living in Hacienda Heights, a suburb of Los Angeles. I wasn’t paying any rent, thanks to living with my grandparents, but I drove to my internships every day. My job was less than five miles from my house, but my internships were 25 to 30 miles away.
I’d spend nearly $100 per week on gas and sit in stand-still traffic each day. Plus, I’d get calls daily asking for my $1,000 monthly payments. Much like today, it didn’t matter how much I paid, it wasn’t making a dent in my original borrowed amount.
As my internships came to a close, I was offered a full-time position at a public-relations agency in LA, so I left NAU without officially graduating. I was eager to get a full-time job, but with an entry-level salary I couldn’t afford the minimum monthly payments, which at that time were $800.
Car payments along with other debt kept my wallet tight. In 2016, I got a student-loan forbearance, which halted payments but not the interest. This helped for a couple of years, but my payments restarted in 2018. This time they were $500 a month.
In April 2019, I ended up moving to Flagstaff, Arizona, hoping for a more affordable cost-of-living
I freelanced remotely for an agency in LA and another in Phoenix while working as a server and Postmates driver at night and on the weekends. I was doing great and even enrolled in a summer semester at Mesa Community College in Phoenix, since I needed 10 more elective units to officially graduate. I took three online courses in five weeks and finished with a 4.0 GPA, then I transferred those credits to NAU. I got my diploma in the mail a few months later.
I paid out-of-pocket to go back to school, and it was significantly cheaper than my tuition at NAU — only $85 per credit hour. This helped me defer my loans for another year, but the interest continued to grow. With private loans, you can only defer your payments when you’re in school — specifically, if you’re returning to college, attending graduate school, or participating in an internship, clerkship, fellowship, or residency.
When my loans were deferred, I decided to only focus on my job and saving money. Since the cost of living in Arizona increased dramatically — almost to California levels — during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m back to where I was financially a few years ago.
I feel like there’s no end in sight
My minimum monthly loan payments are currently set at $980, but I still can only afford to pay $500. I’m currently “behind” about $2,600 in payments. I still owe $95,576 in loans, and it sucks that private loans were left out of President Joe Biden’s forgiveness program.
I go back and forth on this topic, as I see both sides. I think loans need to get repaid, but I don’t think interest rates should be as high as they are. It’s the interest fees that are screwing everyone over.
I also don’t think school should cost so much. But despite what I think, I’m stuck in this situation.