Student-Loan Borrower Chooses Between Paying Debt and Health Insurance

  • Robin O’Brien, 61, has $64,000 in student debt from her master’s degree.
  • She’s experiencing long COVID, which has caused her to work part time earning half an income.
  • Now, she’s forced to choose between affording health insurance or paying off her student debt.

Even on an income-driven repayment plan for her $64,000 student-debt load, Robin O’Brien can’t afford the payments.

After working in long-term care facilities for 25 years, O’Brien said the next step in her career was becoming an administrator — but in order to be in that field while making a sufficient income, she needed a master’s degree. When she took out federal loans to take online classes at two public universities, and after graduating in 2017, there was no way she could have foreseen the pandemic and the financial strain it would bring.

Now, she’s dealing with long-COVID symptoms that forced her to work part time, and her medical bills and student-debt bills are unmanageable.

“Right now, I’m picking five of the envelopes with medical bills, and then I’ll pay them $20 apiece,” O’Brien said, referring to the stack of bills she gets each month. “And the next month I’ll take five more and pay $20 apiece. I can’t really afford more than $100.”

O’Brien said her health insurance costs $525 a month, and paying for that, along with other basic necessities, on a part-time income of about $2,000 a month is pushing her to choose between getting medical treatment or staying current on her student loans. Federal loan payments have been on pause since the start of the pandemic, and O’Brien hasn’t made any payments during this time. But she said she struggled with them prior to the pause, and she doesn’t think she’ll be able to pay off her debt when the pause expires after August 31.

Based on the most recent reports, President Joe Biden is considering forgiving $10,000 in student debt for federal borrowers making under $150,000 a year, and The Wall Street Journal reported that the announcement likely wouldn’t be made until July or August. But the White House hasn’t confirmed any plans, and it’s unclear whether graduate students or parents who took out loans for their kids would be included.

“I don’t know how I’m going to afford it,” O’Brien said. “I just don’t think it’s something I can afford.”

‘I’m stuck making payments for the rest of my life’

Income-driven repayment plans are intended to give student-loan borrowers monthly payments that are affordable based on their income, with the promise of loan forgiveness after at least 20 years on the plan. But that’s quite a ways away for O’Brien, and she wished people like her could be considered for Biden’s broad relief proposals.

“I’m stuck making payments for the rest of my life,” O’Brien said. “I worked very hard for that degree, and I’m actually using it for the purpose in which I got it, but I can’t make those payments on just one paycheck.”

The idea to exclude higher earners and graduate students from relief is likely an attempt to avoid criticism from Republican lawmakers and experts who have argued that broad student-loan forgiveness would help the wealthy the most. 

“If his goal is to have low-income Americans subsidize privileged college graduates and the upper class, President Biden will meet that mark if he moves forward with this disastrous policy,” said Virginia Foxx, a top Republican on the House education committee. 

But as seen with O’Brien, having a graduate degree doesn’t necessarily mean earning a high income, and Democrats have maintained student-loan forgiveness will help lower-income borrowers the most.

For example, a report last year from the left-leaning Roosevelt Institute found that 61% of students with incomes of $30,000 and under who began college in 2012 graduated with student debt, compared to the 30% of students with incomes $200,000 and higher who left school with debt.

The debate around who would benefit from broad student-loan relief persists, but O’Brien hopes she doesn’t get left out of that conversation.

“People in my situation are deserving of help,” O’Brien said. “I just don’t see myself being able to cover that student-loan debt.”

Do you have a story to share about student debt? Reach out to Ayelet Sheffey at [email protected].

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