College degrees often come with a huge bill that can take decades to pay back. In fact, approximately 45 million people in the United States collectively hold a whopping $1.7 trillion in student loans. Black women graduate with the most debt. While the CARES Act has placed loan repayment on hold during the pandemic, conversations continue among members of Congress and President Joe Biden on how to alleviate the financial burden through loan forgiveness—and whether to give loan providers the go-ahead to resume billing in October or push it back until next March. As Senator Elizabeth Warren continues to press for reform of the existing system and Senator Chuck Schumer promotes #CancelStudentDebt, we introduce you to three savvy women who have already devised plans to pay down their debt and avoid loan default by relying on more than their salaries.
Shaarona Harris, Bachelor of Arts
Manager of Multiple Streams of Revenue
Student Loan Debt: around $80,000
Shaarona “Becky” Harris, 44, works full-time as a multimedia specialist for a think tank in Washington, D.C., and divides the rest of her time between her family, sleep and several side gigs. The $80,000 she racked up in both private and federal student loans, after she switched from a state-funded, community-college education to American University, mandates her hustle. “In my mind, I was thinking free money,” she admits. “I was in my 20s and just clueless. Nobody really sat me down and told me how this was going to affect my life, long term. I didn’t even know what interest rates were.”
After she graduated, hardship deferments and a graduated payment plan meant that the outstanding loan amount continued to increase. It wasn’t until years later, when she married, that her husband pointed out her minimal payments were not doing anything to lower the principal of the loan. “I was literally pouring water into a bucket with holes,” she says. “The crazy thing is, my husband and I have good–paying jobs, but student loans were really dragging us down.” So on top of her full-time job, Harris became a Certified Nursing Assistant/Certified Med Tech, working a few evenings a week and weekends caring for hospice patients. “This also led to my working for the Washington Institute for Natural Medicine, where I took my knowledge of patient care and became certified in lymphatic drainage,” she says.
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In addition, Harris found a way to turn a hobby and her training as a master gardener into content for a YouTube channel, The Mocha Foodie Gardener, where she makes additional income as a brand ambassador for an in-home hydroponic company. She predicts the $20,000 that now remains of her student loan will be down to zero in two years, since she’s been putting most of the extra income she earns from her side hustles to paying off the outstanding balance.
Danielle Gee, Master of Business Administration
Student Loan Debt: around $100,000
In Danielle Gee’s sophomore year at Princeton, the school raised her family’s tuition contribution from $1,500 to $8,000 when her mother’s pay as a registered nurse increased and her new stepfather’s salary was added to the total household income, despite the fact that he was not a contributor to Gee’s tuition. “Even though my mom, on paper, was making more, she didn’t really have enough to cover the increase, so I took out loans to pay the entire portion,” says Gee, 38, chief of staff for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and a CEO Action Fellow for Racial Equity through her company.
Three years after leaving Princeton, Gee was enrolled at Harvard Business School. She received a substantial grant from Harvard to attend and secured a pre-MBA internship with the investment company UBS through Management Leadership for Tomorrow’s Prep Program. She also received an annual $20,000 scholarship toward her tuition from UBS. “Instead of having $200,000 in debt,” she says, “I came out of Harvard owing $80,000, which is still a lot.” This amount, combined with her undergrad loans, brought her total debt to about $100,000 in 2010. The debt lingered even after she got married and started her family. She and her husband were forced to observe a tight budget, share one car, live in a tiny apartment with their first son, and not travel much—while also paying off their wedding debt.
Gee paid off the loans with the highest interest rates first, beginning with the one that had a 9 percent rate. In just eight years, the Teaneck, New Jersey, resident was able to cut her $100,000 student loan in half by using her signing bonus, salary and subsequent annual bonuses from UBS, once the company hired her as a full-time employee. And then she found Givling, an app that crowdfunds student loan and mortgage debt through a series of trivia questions. The goal is to become number one. She obsessively played every day, several times a day, for nine months, and accrued a debt of $10,000 on her credit card as a result.
Fortunately, Gee won $50,000 and was able to pay off the amount left on her loan; she even had $8,000 extra to pay toward her mortgage. “It was a gamble that paid off for me,” she says. At this point, she recommends that -anyone looking to use this risky method of paying back their loans tread lightly: “I would recommend it only if you play without investing a dime.”
Cheryl Proctor, Doctor of Philosophy
Student Loan Debt: over $150,000
When Cheryl Proctor, 52, talks about the more than $150,000 she owes in student loan debt after attending undergraduate and graduate school, her eyes fill with tears. “While I am fairly successful, the financial burden of the loans hangs over my head,” she says. These feelings persist even though she has been promoted to a supervisory role in a large urban school district and though she managed to pay for her doctoral degree in educational leadership without accruing additional student loan debt.
Since she relied on deferments and forbearance when she could not afford to pay, the total amount of her original loans has grown exponentially over the years, due to interest and fees. “I’m expected to pay back thousands upon thousands of dollars,” she says. “And I’m like, I did not borrow all of this money. There are times I cry, because it is a burden.”
Her parents, immigrants from Jamaica, encouraged her to pursue her education but were unfamiliar with the system and unable to give her financial advice. “They were just working and trying to make it, so they didn’t know how to help me,” Proctor says. “I don’t know that they really understood what I was dealing with themselves. I think student loans impact people of color the most, because we are the ones who most depend on them to go to college. We are always trying to achieve, to get that promotion—and you feel like in order to do that, you have to go back to school to get another degree.”
Early in her career as a special-education teacher, Proctor found out that she could have had a percentage of her loans forgiven—but because she hadn’t enrolled in the program within her first 90 days of being hired, she no longer qualified. That missed opportunity, plus the responsibilities of managing a home and family, made it difficult to keep up her payments. “Now I was thirty-something, and although they called about payments and payment plans, I did not understand that there is compounding interest—and the amount multiplies while it’s in deferment,” Proctor says.
A few years ago, Proctor enrolled in a ten-year income-driven repayment plan through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. She has been making qualified, timely payments on her balance—as well as paying for her daughter’s undergraduate education out of pocket, to ensure that the cycle of student loan debt ends with her.
Lee Anna A. Jackson is a New York-based writer and educator.
This article originally appeared in the latest issue of ESSENCE magazine, available on newsstands now.