The $1.5 Trillion Albatross Weighing Down College Grads

America currently wears a $1.5 trillion albatross around its neck in the form of student loan debt. Of all categories of debt in the US, student loan debt is the second largest—only mortgage debt is higher (approximately $8.8 trillion). 

By Kenyon Briggs

An albatross is a large, oceanic bird whose wingspan can stretch up to ten feet, sometimes helping it glide more than 10,000 miles in a single journey. However, it has also come to represent a psychological burden that someone carries. In his 1798 poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge tells the story of a sailor who killed and hung an albatross around his neck, only to then watch as his fellow crew members died. The sailor was forced to live in exile, and his story serves as a warning to others—don’t kill an albatross.

America currently wears a $1.5 trillion albatross around its neck in the form of student loan debt. Of all categories of debt in the US, student loan debt is the second largest—only mortgage debt is higher (approximately $8.8 trillion).  Additionally, Forbes reported in January 2019 that the average 2016 graduate left college with $37,000 in student loans. Even members of Congress carry six-figure student loans. A recent study by Roll Call reported that 46-year-old Representative, Jahana Hayes, (D-CT 5th District.) still carries approximately $115,000 in student debt.

Student debt is a weight carried by millennials that has an incredibly detrimental effect on their life. Multiple reports from early 2019 show that millennials are feeling extremely trapped under their student debt obligations. As a result, many are choosing to defer major life decisions, like buying a home or getting married. Additionally, while many millennials prioritize their student debt over other big decisions, a dismally small number of students have paid off their debts. The US Department of Education reported that only 38% of students who began undergraduate educations in 1995, and only 20% of students who began school in 2003, have their student debts paid off. Industry experts estimate that by 2023, 40% of borrowers will default on their student loans.

The problem is clear, but the solution is complicated. Some have tried to seek relief in court: in 2018, the State of California sued Navient (one of the largest student loan servicers in the US), alleging that Navient had intentionally misdirected students into loan repayment programs when those programs did not qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Additionally, Navient was charged with ignoring students’ best interests in an effort to earn more fees, which violated its government-provided contract to service student loans.

Some universities are trying to fix the problem themselves. Private universities, like Harvard, allow students whose families earn less than a certain amount (Harvard’s limit is $65,000 or less) to receive free tuition. While generous, this does not help those who were not admitted to Harvard.

Congress has proposed several bills designed to address different factors that contribute to the student debt crisis. Senator Elizabeth Warren proposed legislation (S.793) that would allow students to refinance their student loans so as to pay smaller interest rates. There are three other House and Senate bills (S.1373—Sen. Sanders, H.R.5487—Rep. Bass, and H.R.1434—Rep. Courtney) that advocate for student loan finance reform. There have also been four bills (S.2456—Sen. Warner, H.R.2429—Rep. McDermott, S.2463—Sen. Blumenthal, and H.R.5899—Rep. Swalwell) focused on simplifying and strengthening students’ student debt repayment options in recent years. There are many other proposed solutions circulating throughout Washington D.C., but despite the lack of enacted law on the matter, Congress does appear to be focusing on this problem. For a full list of proposed legislation, see

Like the sailor in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, graduates throughout the country cannot enjoy many of life’s wonders due to the weight of their student debt.  They struggle to see a light at the end of the path, and not unreasonably so. Unless something changes—either a law passed by Congress, a successful suit in court, or independent initiatives by more colleges and universities—student debt will continue to be the proverbial albatross that students will wear around their neck for a very long time.