When we think about the student debt crisis, it's easy to place the blame on irresponsible borrowers who went overboard racking up loans for a run-of-the-mill degree. But the problem is far more widespread, so much so that many successful professionals today, from doctors to lawyers to financial gurus, are drowning in student loans with no light at the end of that very long tunnel.
Even high-profile politicians are feeling the pain. Just ask South Bend, Indiana, mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who, together with his husband, Chasten, have over $130,000 in student debt.
Clearly, that's not a small amount of money, and it's a lot of debt to shoulder on a mayor and teacher's salary (Chasten was a teacher in South Bend, though he's currently campaigning on a full-time basis).
In fact, Buttigieg's experience with student debt is likely influencing his political stance on the matter, as he's proposing to make public colleges debt-free for low- and middle-income families. And he's not the only presidential hopeful pushing for change on the student debt front.
Earlier this year, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren introduced a plan to forgive up to $50,000 in student debt for 42 million Americans. Meanwhile, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders unveiled a bill in June to eliminate student debt for 45 million borrowers and make public colleges free.
Whether these various proposals will be successful is yet to be determined. The best thing folks with student debt can do for now is take steps to better manage those loan payments.
Staying on top of your student debt
If you're drowning in student loans, it's important that you keep up with those payments. Fall behind, and you'll risk consequences ranging from a damaged credit score to having your wages garnished.
If you took out federal loans, you can explore borrower protections like income-driven repayment plans or deferment. With the former, you can have your monthly payments recalculated as a reasonable percentage of your salary. With the latter, you can take a break from making payments altogether.
Both options may come with the unwanted consequence of prolonging the life of your loans, but if you're struggling to make your payments, they're worth looking into.
If you borrowed privately for college, you'll need to reach out to your lender and see what accommodations can be made on your behalf. Chances are, your lender will work with you if you've managed to keep up with your payments thus far. And if not, you can look into refinancing your student debt -- an option worth pursuing if your credit score is strong.
Avoiding student debt
If you're not currently carrying student loans, but expect to do so in the course of obtaining a degree, proceed with caution. The more you borrow, the more you're apt to struggle to pay off your debt after the fact.
Choosing a community or in-state public college over an out-of-state or private school is a good way to keep your tuition bills at a more reasonable level.
At the same time, be careful about how you borrow for college. Max out your federal loans before resorting to private lenders, but also resist the urge to borrow recklessly just because the option exists.
Private student loan originators aren't capped in their lending practices, so you can borrow as much as a lender is willing to give you. But know that if you go overboard, you might suffer the consequences later on.
The fact that we could, conceivably, wind up with a president with student debt speaks to the expansive scope of the problem. If you're of voting age, it pays to see where today's candidates stand on student debt, as it could inform your decision when election season rolls around.