The pandemic offered a taste of student debt cancellation. It ends next year.

For some Floridians, the federal pause on student loan payments — now ending in May 2022 — opened a door to a better life.
Portrait of Amanda Leaders, a software developer who has seen some financial stability after student loans were paused and who is advocating for loan forgiveness, sending postcards to the White House and to Florida state leaders, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021 in St. Petersburg.
Portrait of Amanda Leaders, a software developer who has seen some financial stability after student loans were paused and who is advocating for loan forgiveness, sending postcards to the White House and to Florida state leaders, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Dec. 22, 2021|Updated Dec. 29, 2021

In the mornings, before she starts work at her software development job, St. Petersburg’s Amanda Leaders sits down with coffee and thinks about whom to send a postcard.

The hobby began in September when she noticed a sale at Vistaprint. She ordered a set of postcards with a black background and plain white typeface: “Hello, Cancel Student Debt, Please.” And below, in smaller letters: “No, really, do it.”

Leaders has sent cards to the White House, the U.S. secretary of education, all nine of Sen. Marco Rubio’s offices. It is her way of coping with the news that the federal pause on many mandatory student loan payments and interest will end soon. It’s a last-ditch effort to preserve the kind of life she and others say they’ve tasted with student debt out of the way.

For some student loan borrowers, the pause that started with the CARES Act in March 2020 was a rare silver lining in the pandemic. Those who spoke to the Tampa Bay Times said without that burden, they felt closer to the adult life they expected with a college degree: Savings accounts. Mortgages. Christmas gifts without having to extend their debt.

The pause had been set to end after Jan. 31, 2022. On Wednesday, after this story was first published, the Biden administration said it will extend the suspension of loan payments through May 1.

Related: Pause on student loan payments is extended through May 1

Millennials were buying first homes during the pandemic like they were baby boomers, said Devin Dominguez, a 39-year-old Tampa woman who, with the extra $500 a month, finally paid off other debts. She bought a condo after her credit score jumped 120 points.

The Federal Reserve estimates the average monthly student loan payment is $393. Total student debt in the U.S. is around $1.75 trillion. The Department of Education estimates borrowers saved $5 billion per month on interest during the pause.

With interest, some borrowers make payments for years or decades without seeing their balance shrink.

Earlier this month, as the apparent end of the reprieve approached, borrowers said they felt blanketed with dread, malaise or nihilism.

“I was given this feeling of financial security and relief from this thing that was stopping me from … having any kind of freedom for years,” said Andrew Williams, a 31-year-old urban planner. Williams was fired from his job recently, after a dispute over what he said was a promise he’d be allowed to work remotely.

He said the payment pause has allowed him, for the first time since graduation, to calmly seek a job that’s actually a good fit, without the “desperation” of looming $1,100 monthly payments. With money that normally went to student loans, he bought his first stocks and said he saw a fivefold return. “I was excited and hopeful. But I’m about to go backwards.”

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Leaders, who owes more than $42,000 in loans from her undergraduate and graduate degrees, finally repaired her roof, which had been leaking into baking pans on the floor since Hurricane Irma in 2017. She stopped worrying about her grocery bill. She could afford emergency medical care for a pet.

The idea of someday having a child, or at least not dying in debt, seemed fleetingly possible.

In early December, as the end of the pause loomed, she was sending postcards and thinking again of dark jokes she and her friends had made before vaccines: “Well, if COVID kills us, at least we won’t have to pay our student loans.”

Amanda Leaders, a software developer who has seen some financial stability after student loans were paused and who is advocating for loan forgiveness, sending postcards to the White House and to Florida state leaders, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021 in St. Petersburg.
Amanda Leaders, a software developer who has seen some financial stability after student loans were paused and who is advocating for loan forgiveness, sending postcards to the White House and to Florida state leaders, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

A generational divide, a mental burden

If the promise of college is access to a land of American plenty — a stable career, home and car ownership, travel, the ability to provide for a family, care for one’s parents and eventually retire — it remains unfulfilled for many.

The oldest millennials turned 40 this year. Compared with baby boomers at 40, they’re less wealthy, less likely to own stocks and less likely to own a home, according to a recent Bloomberg analysis of Federal Reserve data. Wages have not kept pace with costs of housing and living.

The majority of the nation’s student debt is owed by millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, and Generation Xers, born between 1965 and 1980, according to the Education Data Initiative. Millennial student loan borrowers owe $38,877 on average, while Generation X borrowers owe an average of $45,095, according to that data. More than 6 million baby boomers also have student loan debt, as many took loans out for their children’s education.

The Student Debt Crisis Center said its recent survey of 33,703 borrowers showed that 89 percent say they’re not financially secure enough to begin making payments after Jan. 31.

“I think we’re going to be right back where we started, in the same mess as two years ago,” Jason Houle, an associate professor of sociology at Dartmouth College who researches student debt, said about the end of the moratorium.

“There is plenty of evidence showing loans really shape the transition into adulthood” and delay those milestones in varying ways, Houle said. “At the end of the day, it makes people miserable. They sleep worse, they have worse mental health, worse physical health.”

Tampa resident Sydney Gillian owes close to $70,000. With no other way to pay, she took loans, she said, because she was taught her entire life that a college degree was worth it at nearly any cost. When she couldn’t find a livable wage with a degree in childhood and family services, she began working toward a second bachelor’s degree, in business, before the pandemic.

She started a job in human resources in 2020, where she earns far more than she did as a preschool teacher, but she’s scared to see how much of that life-improving income will be gobbled up by larger income-based loan payments when they return.

“It’s just been really nice not to think about them for two years,” said Gillian, 27. “After I got the alert saying they were starting soon, I just keep thinking, ‘How can I get rid of them?’ ”

Houle said many who are unable to pay down loan balances are first-generation college graduates who can’t turn to their parents for help. “They were supposed to be the one who turned things around for their family, who their family could come to for money,” he said.

Sociologists who think about mental health, Houle said, weigh the importance of event-based stressors, like a divorce or job loss, which are ephemeral, versus chronic stressors, the inescapable things people wake up to daily. “That’s what student debt is,” he said, “and that’s what really wears you down.”

Houle said the long pause on loan payments could prove useful to researchers who’ve long wondered what would happen if student loan debt disappeared overnight.

“Social scientists are always looking for natural experiments,” he said. “There is some potential there.”

He also sees it as proof that the federal government has the ability to take action, whether that’s radical change like debt forgiveness or smaller changes, such as automatically enrolling borrowers in income-based repayment plans or making them more affordable.

“The pause,” he said, “showed the government can do this with the snap of a finger.”

Payments returning in 2022

President Joe Biden campaigned on supporting the cancellation of at least $10,000 in student debt per person. Nearly a year into his term, he has not acted on that pledge or on calls from some Democrats to cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt through executive order.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, like many congressional Republicans, has opposed cancellation as an unfair drain on taxpayers, but he has acknowledged a need for reform. He cited “an insurmountable debt cycle for years beyond graduation” in August when he introduced legislation that would eliminate interest on student loans and make income-based repayment automatic.

Cari Robaldo, an artist and advertising agency manager in Bradenton, said the pause let her help her mother, who lost much of her remote work teaching students in China this year. The $300 Robaldo had paid monthly on loans went to her mom’s house payments. With her mom still struggling to find work and loan payments returning, she said she feels hopeless.

She thought education would secure her future, she said, “but having gone through over half of my 20s at this point and still being on the struggle bus, it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t a lie.”

Philip Belcastro, a 34-year-old English teacher at St. Petersburg High School, faces uncertainty: After graduating, he made low wages at nonprofits and had his loans deferred; now with higher income, he’ll have to start making payments when the pause ends. He doesn’t know how much.

He feels his generation is treading water and waiting to be crushed by the next big wave.

He teaches texts about the perils of the American Dream — Of Mice and Men, A Raisin in the Sun — and tries to give his students hope, even if he has little himself.

“Are they done?” he asks himself. “Do I have rooms full of 16-year-olds who are just checked out?”

Treading water sounds right to St. Petersburg’s Jacqueline Madison, a married mother of three. She made payments on her initial $18,000 loan for 14 years. Today, after interest, it’s at $25,000. That’s a common experience for borrowers making lower, income-based payments, which help prevent default but can wind up going mostly toward interest.

Madison scraped by, working in restaurants for seven years after graduating with a psychology degree, then took another $50,000 in loans for grad school. It paid off, and she makes far more in IT, but her $850 payments had prevented her family from saving anything for retirement.

With the pause, she saved money and, at 35, made her first-ever contribution to a 401(k). “I never had a savings account with more than $8 in it until the hiatus,” she said. When payments resume, she said, her contributions will stop.

Leaders, the software developer, spent the past few years calculating how she might have a child as a single woman. Her bar was always whether she could afford child care. During the pandemic, she said, she realized she finally could — but only if loan payments never returned.

One of her loans wasn’t covered by the pause, and over the summer, she said, she was late on a payment. The company that services her loan immediately began calling her six times a day. The black cloud returned. If someone like her, with a good job and generational wealth, couldn’t claw her way out from under student loans, she wondered, how could anyone?

She’s toyed with the idea of not making payments when the pause ends. She wonders how long it would take for the loan provider to sue her.

“I feel like I’ve been paying on this forever and will continue to be paying on this forever,” she said. “So what’s the point?”

Times engagement producer Anila Lijo contributed to this story.