On August 31, the pause in student loan repayments will end and millions of Americans will once again be on the hook for thousands of dollars each.
WUSF introduces you to three Tampa Bay area residents trying to figure out how they will handle this change.
When Wall Street crashed and the recession hit in 2008, Ericka Leigh was a comedian and waitress working to pay the bills in New York City.
She didn’t want to work in the restaurant business forever. So she moved back to Tampa and enrolled in a master’s program in sustainability at the University of South Florida to gain more financial stability.
“I had 11 years of restaurant experience and a Bachelor of Arts and felt like on paper I didn’t really look that good,” she said.
Leigh took out $40,000 in loans for the program in addition to the more than $20,000 she already had in undergraduate loans.
Part of the high price tag was due to Leigh’s decision to borrow more in her second year of graduate school to take advantage of internships she hoped would boost her resume.
“I thought that after I graduated, in a year, I would have a well-paying job,” she said. “I would use my education, my network from college. And they gave me my degree, and then I really felt like I was on my own.”
After graduating from the program in 2015, Leigh says she applied for around 100 jobs to no avail.
Although she received support and letters of recommendation from her counsellor, Leigh said she wanted more help getting placed in a job.
“I feel like at the master’s level, you should have more support from the staff and faculty at this college,” she said. “Because you just invested so much time, energy and money to get a degree from this institution, they should help you make sure you can afford the degree you just paid for.”
Leigh still works three jobs to raise enough money to pay the rent for her Seminole Heights apartment: graphic design for an Oregon education startup, communications for Meals on Wheels of Tampa, and sewing her own bow ties. , pennants and tapestries for his small business. Sewn separately.
Before the pandemic, Leigh wasn’t earning enough to repay her loans, but the interest was still accruing. Although she is still living paycheck to paycheck, the repayment break has changed her life.
“It put my anxiety on hold,” she said. “I still don’t feel like I’m making a living, but it’s the most financially stable situation I’ve ever been in. So it’s given me the opportunity to build my life now in a way which suits me best.”
Dominique Baker is assistant professor of educational policy at Southern Methodist University.
Without specifically talking about Leigh’s debt, she said it’s hard to decide what level of education you need – and how much cost you can afford.
“We create this difficult dynamic where we kind of structure our society and tell people that the way they can have financial security is to pursue higher education,” Baker said. “But then we set it up so that for some people the only way to get more education is to leverage funding heavily.”
Even though earnings have increased slightly, Leigh, 36, remains worried about making the payments on August 31. She just wants to keep the first apartment she lived in alone, and maybe save up for a house one day.
“I just want to cry,” Leigh said. “My heart, my chest tightens at the thought of repaying the loans. It literally keeps me awake at night.
“And then, at the same time, I don’t care because that’s the only thing that can’t be taken away from me, I have my education.”