Dan Forward and Chrissie Connors met four years ago at Jamaica Pond, running laps with a Saturday morning 5K club. Now fast friends, they still make it back to see buddies or grab coffee afterward at City Feed and Supply. Occasionally, Connors rides the loop on bike, sharing snacks and stories.
They also have another bond — one they would rather not think about, until it becomes impossible not to. Each owes tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, debt that on some days seems so insurmountable they cannot imagine ever being free of it.
It consumes the two friends, forming the spine of a long-running conversation over WhatsApp. In the messages, there’s humor and despair, glimmers of hope quickly shattered by reality. Sometimes, they share links to stories about borrowers who never see diplomas or elite master’s degrees that go to waste.
“Ours is an everyday story about everyday people, caught in this web of student loans, of the never-ending borrowing and repaying and refinancing that is built into the American way of life,” the 35-year-old Forward said. “It’s always on our minds. What other generation has had to talk about this so much?”
Connors and Forward are among the 43 million people — 900,000 Massachusetts residents — who owe a staggering $1.6 trillion in college debt. A decade ago, that number sat at $966 billion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Ten years earlier? Around $250 billion.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis reached the forefront of the political conversation for young debtors, when the federal government paused loan repayments. Borrowers are now waiting to see if President Biden will prolong the moratorium through the end of the year or until next summer, and, as he said on the campaign trail in 2020, knock $10,000 off the loans for “everybody in this generation.”
That move could lighten the load for many; the average debt among graduates was $30,000 in 2020, up from about $17,000 two decades ago.
In the late 2000s, Connors borrowed $40,000 to attend Fordham University. The 34-year-old works a program manager at a health care nonprofit, scraping by on a salary that just covers rent, essentials, and medical bills.
While Forward took out much more — $174,300 — he is the better-positioned of the two. A lawyer, Forward endured lean years of low-paying jobs, but now is finally earning serious money, enough to buy a home in Jamaica Plain. And that’s not counting the money his mother borrowed for his undergraduate tuition at Boston College.
The pair occupy different echelons of Boston’s educated millennial class. Neither believes he or she would be a prime candidate for the loan forgiveness program Biden promises is in the pipeline, and Forward noted there are many borrowers more deserving of relief than him: people with onerous debts and jobs that don’t make much of a dent, or who did not finish college at all.
“I’m rightfully at the back of the line. I very much believe in loan forgiveness to achieve greater equality, and I know it disproportionately affects people of color,” he said. “But I would like a reasonable chance to pay off the loans, which I don’t see myself having right now.”
Helplessness, anger, procrastination, and most acutely, anxiety, shadow them constantly, the debts testing their emotional strength as much as their long-term financial wellness.
“I kicked the can down the road on my loans for a long time just to avoid the anxiety,” Connors said.
Just the $10,000 in forgiveness that Biden has mentioned would eliminate college debt for one third of borrowers. While the details of what, exactly, relief would look like remain unclear, Forward and Connors are hopeful.
Connors’ loans paid for the chunks of her political science undergraduate degree that her parents could not cover. Debt seemed like a sensible path — at the time, maybe the only path. For graduate school, though, she lasered in on public health and avoided borrowing money again with a $15,000 scholarship at Boston University and by working full time at Tufts Medical Center.
The undergraduate loans still loom over her like a dark cloud.
“Having to pay this much in student loans is a uniquely American thing,” she said. “It haunts me every day.”
Like Forward, Connors asked that her exact salary not be disclosed. But at mid-five figures, her job at Cambridge Health Alliance doesn’t cover much beyond the basics. Almost half goes to rent for her Brighton studio. Even a $60 grocery run triggers Connors’ anxiety, and the barrage of medical bills from a chronic condition — endless tests and prolonged, though infrequent, overnight hospital stays — keep her awake at night.
“It feels like I’ll get a bill from Beth Israel until the day I die,” Connors said.
Forty years ago, when tuition cost much less, both of Connors’ parents obtained master’s degrees. They bought a home in the Bronx in New York City on a modest mortgage and had children young. “That was a real thing you did,” she said. For her? “Not possible.”
When the stress feels overwhelming, she often messages Forward. He types a reply, equally upset.
Forward used the moratorium during the pandemic to refinance his debt to make monthly payments more predictable. Those moves lowered his average interest rate from 7.4 percent to 3.5 percent and helped shave $46,000 off his balance.
That, and a better-paying job reading contracts for a tech company, has substantially improved Forward’s finances. He and his wife own a three-bedroom condo. A miniature golden retriever became their pandemic puppy.
But even at his more comfortable position the debts are so large that he can’t relax, and can’t make them go away anytime soon.
Nine loans for Suffolk University Law School covered everything from tuition and books to groceries and rent. After graduation, the monthly bill payments — tied to his income — filled Forward with dread. His first job, reading contracts at a Woburn real estate firm, only paid $17 an hour.
“I avoided anything, everything, that had to do with loans to stay sane,” Forward said. “Thinking about it all too much made me realize how big that number is, how difficult it is to make it hit zero.”
Every year for nearly a decade, he would anticipate the arrival of the annual income certification for his loan payments. The process became “four months of hell.”
The interest piled up over time and eventually added over $50,000 to Forward’s original balance. He knows now that he should’ve consolidated his debt sooner.
“They say it takes $250,000 to raise a kid from birth to 18 years old,” Forward said. “My loans are like I adopted a child.”
Loan forgiveness — particularly for high-earning professionals such as doctors and lawyers — is controversial.
Republican lawmakers have condemned it as an insult to those who already paid off their debt and a burden on taxpayers.
Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff called the prospect “cosmetic” at best. At worst, erasing debt could be inflationary, he said, encouraging those with forgiven debts to spend money elsewhere, fueling the startling rise in prices that has moved the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates.
But early research shows that loan forgiveness could boost borrowers, particularly those with low incomes. In a 2019 paper, Harvard Business School professor Marco Di Maggio found that when a private lender eradicated 800,000 college loans following a court order, borrowers’ income grew by $3,000 in three years. Removing that debt also made them less likely to miss payments on mortgages, credit cards, and medical bills.
“The narrative policy makers use is that people who default on student loans will default elsewhere. They say it’s like putting water in a bucket with a hole,” Di Maggio said. “We found that’s not the case.”
More than anything, Forward thinks of what forgiveness could mean for his mother. A Jane Eyre fan, she raised him in a Swampscott home plastered in books and took out loans for his tuition at Boston College. Through the 2008 recession, she continued accruing debt.
Her loans haven’t yet been paid off, and she refuses to tell Forward where the debt stands, much less let him pay down some of it. The less he owes, the more he could help her — “whatever my family needed,” Forward said.
Since COVID struck, Connors halted many of her loan payments, instead letting the money build up in her bank account. Occasionally, she puts money toward the debt, if only to remind herself the pause won’t last.
“I don’t want to ever feel like that money is truly mine, because eventually it won’t be,” Connors said.
Shedding some of that burden would make the simple joys that much sweeter. She often works or studies late into the night, finding peaceful moments to bake tres leches or confetti cake for even the most mundane celebrations.
But she may want to return to school, find a more lucrative career focus, and raise her income.
“That feels insane,” Connors said. “But sometimes necessary. And right.”