When Kate Quick, 43, finished her master of fine arts degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks 22 years ago, she had taken out about $30,000 in loans.
Now, she owes nearly $48,000, even after years of making payments.
"I just can't think straight whenever I have to deal with student loans," said Quick, who now works for the faculty union at the University of Alaska.
She also barely missed an opportunity for relief. Quick previously worked as a professor at the university, so she investigated Public Service Loan Forgiveness, or PSLF, a program that would forgive her debt because she worked in education.
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The program requires 120 qualifying payments, which takes about 10 years. The rules for what kinds of payments qualify, however, are strict. Although Quick worked as an adjunct and then a tenure-track professor for 17 years, only the payments she made while she was a full-time employee count toward the program.
She's short of the 120 payments she needs to qualify, and she no longer works at an eligible employer. Now, she's in a different career and sees few opportunities to return to teaching — she doesn't want to go back to the university, and she is not certified to teach elementary, middle or high school.
In addition, Quick had to change her Federal Family Education Loans to direct loans when determining eligibility for PSLF. That added $17,000 to her principal.
Her monthly payments will also increase to $568 each month from $88. If she follows the current payment plan set by her servicer, she will end up paying roughly $170,000 to eliminate her debt. Her husband, a jewelry artist who went back to school to become a computer scientist, also has student loans and has a payment that's more than $500 each month.
"It makes me panic," she said, adding that because of student loans, the family has put off buying a house and saving for college for their three teenage children.
"It created some marital problems over the years because money is a thing that people fight about in relationships," she said. "And, especially when you don't have a lot of it, which was us."
A common problem
Quick is not alone. More than 60% of borrowers say student loan debt has negatively affected their mental health, according to the CNBC + Acorns Invest In You Student Loan Survey conducted by Momentive. The online poll was conducted Jan. 10-13 among a national sample of 5,162 adults.
"When people aren't able to pay their bills or their student loans as quickly as they should, there is a level of shame and sometimes guilt," said Aja Evans, a licensed mental health counselor who works with Laurel Road, a digital banking platform. "That can quickly turn into feeling bad about yourself and not feeling like you can present who you truly are to other people because you're worrying about the financial stresses in your life."
The survey also found that the less an individual earns, the more their mental health suffers when it comes to student debt. Less than half of people who earn more than $100,000 annually said that education debt negatively affects their mental health, compared with 59% of those who earn between $50,000 and $99,000 and 70% of those who earn less than $50,000 each year.
Women and younger adults are more likely to report negative mental health effects of student loan debt, the survey showed. Still, more than half of baby boomers said their student debt had a negative impact on their mental state.
"People think student debt is a young person's issue," said Betsy Mayotte, president of The Institute of Student Loan Advisors, a nonprofit that helps student loan borrowers with free advice and dispute resolution. But that isn't true, she said, pointing to millions of older borrowers who are struggling to pay down debt and save for retirement or are retired and still repaying loans.
Why student loan debt hurts mental health
There are many reasons why having student loan debt takes a toll on the mental health of borrowers. Many Americans with debt end up putting off other financial milestones, such as having a baby, buying a home, getting married, saving for retirement or even taking a vacation.
The system is also often confusing to navigate and, aside from not understanding how their loans work, many borrowers have trouble understanding their options for repayment and relief.
That confusion can lead to higher balances or other costly mistakes.
"A lot of people are on income-driven repayment plans that lower what they're required to pay every month," said Bridget Haile, head of operations at Summer, which helps borrowers navigate repayment. "The issue is that for a lot of people even if you make full on-time payments every month for years you will often see your loan balance go up rather than down."
A growing balance, even as you're making payments, is psychologically difficult to face, she said. In addition, if someone has defaulted or hasn't been able to make consistent payments, it can hurt their credit score.
The moratorium on federal student loan interest and payments has helped millions of borrowers.
The Biden administration also relaxed rules for PSLF, making it easier for some borrowers to get forgiveness, and has wiped away all the debt of some borrowers, such as those who were taken advantage of by for-profit institutions.
Still, many borrowers aren't sure how they'll resume payments and have difficulty navigating the systems that may bring them relief. Currently, payments and accruing interest are set to start again in May.
Quick and her husband aren't sure how they'll make their monthly payments when they eventually restart.
"We're both just pulling our hair out and wondering what to do, because we can't afford a $1,100 a month student loan payment," she said. "It just makes our heads spin."
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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.