With over 40 million Americans trying to repay student loans, it shouldn’t be a surprise that student debt is a frequent news topic.
A growing and disturbing trend has been the increase of “inspirational” student loan success stories. The attention-grabbing headline teases the story of how a borrower paid off a massive amount of debt in a short period.
On the surface, these articles appear to be helpful guidance to student loan borrowers. In reality, these articles are harmful to student loan borrowers as individuals and as a group.
Most Success Stories Are Not Realistic
As a borrower, it’s frustrating to read about someone who paid off six figures of student loan debt in just three years.
I’ve often clicked these articles hoping for insight into my debt situation or suggestions I can pass on to readers of this site.
Instead, I read about youtube personalities generating a huge income from their life on the road. Or I read about borrowers who decided to live with mom and dad, so they didn’t have to pay rent.
If you run a successful youtube channel or have the option of living with your parents, kudos to you. Taking advantage of your opportunities is great.
Unfortunately, most borrowers don’t have these options. Some borrowers struggle to find a job. Other borrowers have children. If there is a common thread among the “borrower success stories,” it is that most borrowers have no meaningful chance of employing the strategy described.
Sherpa Note: Normally, I always link to references when writing articles. I’ve deviated from that standard in this article because I don’t want to draw any additional attention to these articles.
These Stories Perpetuate a Harmful Student Loan Borrower Narrative
Many of the voices opposed to student loan reform like to portray student loan borrowers as people looking for a government handout. Overcoming this misconception has been a significant issue for student borrower advocates.
The inspirational student loan payoff stories set the movement back. Stories of rapid student debt elimination give the impression that hard work is the only thing separating student loan borrowers from debt freedom.
Many people only read an article headline and draw conclusions based on that headline. If people see headlines about how quickly people can pay off large amounts of student debt, they can easily conclude that all borrowers can eliminate their debt.
These headlines help spread the narrative that anyone calling for debt cancellation is lazy and unwilling to put in the work.
Student Loan Stories for Most Americans
Eliminating massive amounts of debt in a few short years isn’t the reality faced by many borrowers.
We don’t hear the stories about the people who had their credit destroyed because they couldn’t keep up with their student loan payments. Nobody mentions borrowers who lose job opportunities because they are behind on payments, and their school won’t release their transcript. We don’t hear from the borrowers working two jobs only to have their student loan company demand more than they can afford.
The reality of life with student loans isn’t newsworthy for a couple of reasons. First, it is depressing. Second, it happens all the time. Common events are not noteworthy.
The Actual Lesson: Paying off Student Loans can be Really Hard and Paying them off Fast is Nearly Impossible
Next time you read an inspirational student loan payoff story, think about the great lengths and luck required to make it a reality.
These stories are newsworthy because they rarely happen.
The people portrayed usually need to make tremendous sacrifices AND to have a ton of luck.
If these are the lengths someone must go to repay their debt, what is someone with less luck and less privilege supposed to do?