Back in June, Anna Sale, host of the podcast Death, Sex & Money, started the Our Student Loan Secrets project after realizing how widespread the student loan problem is — and how many people are ready to talk about it. She called for stories from listeners about their student loans, never imagining she would get so many responses.

Those stories have not stopped coming in.

While borrowers often hide the truth about their student loans from their friends and family, they want to talk about it. They are asking questions, giving advice, and trying to figure out if college was worth it. They are changing the conversation about student loans in this country.

Last week, Sale hosted a live podcast that continued the college conversation. The hour-long session covered topics like loan forgiveness, payment plans, and planning for college, driven by live callers who spoke about their student loan situations.

The first caller asked about the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Like so many people, she is concerned about her eligibility and the future of the program. Mirroring accusations that servicers are not giving borrowers important information, the caller described that after years of asking “a hundred of questions to a hundred of different people” at her loan servicing company, she only just heard about the Employment Certification Form to check on her PSLF eligibility last month.

Rohit Chopra, a consumer finance expert and Anna Sale’s first guest, has his own perspective about PSLF. He fears very few people will experience forgiveness this October when the first wave of applicants are expected to complete their 120 payments. He describes it as a complex program and recommends for anyone hoping to apply for forgiveness to go to Forgive My Student Debt to get more information. Furthermore, he speaks of his hesitance to use the word “forgiven” because of the double meaning: “no one who enters public service or had to borrow to do it should feel like they did something wrong.”

For-Profits and Those Who Most Need College Aid

Rohit Chopra’s concern about the word “forgiveness” brings up an interesting conversation about whether the choices surrounding college are wrong. College used to be the “entry point into the American middle class,” according to Tressie McMillan Cottom, former for-profit school recruiter, author of the book Lower Ed, and Anna Sale’s second guest. College was perceived as necessary for upward mobility because a college education would provide the necessary means to better jobs. In theory, that’s still true today, but it’s a bit more complicated.

McMillan Cottom focuses on for-profit colleges, describing how it’s easy to make college more accessible for low-income students, especially women of color and single moms. In fact, Sale quoted statistics from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research that say “30 percent of single mothers in college attend for-profit schools.” Why is that?

According to Chopra, student debt has skyrocketed since the 2008 recession for three reasons, which he calls the “triple whammy”:

  1. College tuition is increasing;
  2. Families are having difficulties contributing to college costs after losing money in the recession; and
  3. New grads are taking jobs where they make barely enough to stay afloat.

Combine that with for-profit colleges’ efforts to make college more accessible — things like offering flexible schedules and on-campus daycare — and we’re seeing campus populations that over-represent low-income and single mom students — those who most need the upward mobility that college administrators, loan lenders, and the federal government promise.

Changing the College Conversation

Families are paying attention to the student debt problem, and they’re ready to change the college conversation. They hear stories of student loan borrowers unable to make payments or unable to find a job — even a bad one — in their field. They hear about unresponsive and unhelpful servicer interactions. Anya Kamenetz, a member of the NPR Ed team, author of the book Generation Debt, and Anna Sale’s final guest, shares that only 56 percent of people who start college finish within 6 years. “Those who are most likely to default on student loans are those with low four figures of debt and no degree.”

Some families may believe that as long as they finish college and get that degree, they will find their spot in the middle class. But it’s not a guarantee. And even those who appear successful thanks to their college education can feel threatened by their student loans.

One caller considers himself lucky. He is a practicing attorney who got the “coveted job” — stable with benefits — out of college, but he has an overwhelming amount of student debt. He and his peers enrolled in income-driven repayment (IDR) plans, saying they were “touted as the main way for folks with a lot of student loan debt to be able to live the life of an adult … to pursue the ‘American Dream’ … and at the end of that rainbow would be the loan forgiveness.”

However, he feels like IDRs are ticking time bombs because the balance forgiven at the end is treated and taxed as income. Especially if your IDR payment does not cover the interest, you could be facing a sizable IRS penalty at the end of 20 or 25 years.

These stories frame the outcome of college as negative, an outcome that families hesitate to recommend to their kids. Consequently, families are having a new kind of college conversation when they plan for life after high school. They talk about community colleges and the constantly resurfacing idea of free college, clinging to the persistent — and still true — perception that college is the entry into the middle class.

Beyond the occassional college conversation at the dinner table, many people are wondering what they can do about the student loan problem. While politicians suggest contacting your representative to try to influence policy, Rohit Chopra suggests taking care of yourself when you start to worry. Instead of relying on servicers or others who may mislead you, do your homework and get the answers you need. Then, share them — it’s likely many others have the same questions.