Skip To Content

    13 Celebrities Who Still Struggled With Student Loan Debt After Finding Success

    You can pay off your student loan debt in one of two ways: Become president, or get cast on Grey's Anatomy.

    Like 44.7 million Americans, I have student loan debt.

    Ethan Barnowsky / Via

    My alma mater is the famously affordable* New York University, and even though I got a scholarship, taking on thousands in debt as a 17-year-old seemed too central to the American college experience to miss out on (and I, uh, needed the money).

    *Note: New York University is not, in fact, affordable, famously or otherwise.

    Right now, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are pushing for President Biden to cancel $50,000 in student loan debt per borrower through executive action. If this amount were forgiven, 84% of borrowers would have their debt wiped out.

    NowThis / Via

    However, Biden is hesitant to do this, arguing that he may not have the authority, and that this amount would disproportionately benefit people with advanced degrees (which, in theory, equals people with higher wages). Instead, he's asked Congress to consider forgiving $10,000 per borrower, which would make about a third of borrowers debt-free.

    The presumption with student loan debt (or, at least, the way I saw it) is that you make the sacrifice (going into, on average, $37,584 in debt) in order to gain the benefits of a college education (both in terms of your personal experience and your value on the job market).

    Melissa Hooper / Via

    But even if you achieve the astronomical success of your college's most famous alumni, you may still struggle with the costs of higher education well beyond the day you're handed a diploma.

    These 13 people reached the tops of their fields, but that didn't stop them from getting candid about just how much the cost of their degrees affected their lives.

    1. President Barack Obama

    Caption: I was in my forties when we finished paying off our debt.  And we should have been saving for Malia and Sasha by that time
    Alex Wong / Getty Images

    Profession: Most notably, President of the United States, but also a community organizer, Senator, professor, attorney, author, and currently, the most challenging job of them all: professional podcaster.

    Alma Maters: Columbia University (B.A. in political science, 1983); Harvard Law School (J.D., 1991).

    On student loan debt: In August 2013, President Obama spoke to the students of SUNY Buffalo about the cost of college in the United States. While calling higher education "the single best investment you can make in your future," Obama noted that over the past 30 years, the cost of tuition had gone up 250%. He then surprised his audience by telling them that he and Michelle Obama had only just finished paying off their student loan debt when he was elected to the Senate, despite their high-paying careers.

    2. Michelle Obama

    Caption: I found that I couldn't take jokes that paid less because I had a mountain of debt
    Paras Griffin / Getty Images

    Profession: Former First Lady of the United States, in addition to being at various times a lawyer, an activist, a non-profit executive director, and an author.

    Alma Maters: Princeton University (B.A. in sociology with a minor in African American studies, 1985); Harvard Law School (J.D., 1988).

    On student loan debt: While speaking at a women's leadership conference at Simmons College, Michelle Obama said that after graduating from Princeton and Harvard, she felt she was limited in her career choices due to her "mountain of debt." The combined debt of Barack and Michelle Obama upon graduating from law school was $120,000.

    3. Jon Hamm

    Caption: Paying off student loans should be easier
    Rodin Eckenroth / Getty Images

    Profession: Actor

    Alma Mater: University of Missouri (B.A. in English, 1993).

    On student loan debt: During a political rally at the University of Minnesota held in 2014, Hamm said, "I went to three universities in four years, and I had financial aid at all." Despite this, he was unable to pay off his loans until 2004, when he started to get steady acting work.

    4. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

    Caption: I think it’s so funny, a year ago, I was waiting tables in a restaurant, and it was literally easier for me to become the youngest woman in American history elected to Congress than it is to pay off my student loan debt
    Win Mcnamee / Getty Images

    Profession: US Representative

    Alma Mater: Boston University (B.A. in international relations and economics, 2011).

    On student loan debt: In 2018, Representative Ocasio-Cortez pointed out she had to "do something that was nearly impossible" (become the youngest American woman ever elected to Congress) in order to have a shot at healthcare and paying off her loans. As of 2019, the Congresswoman had $19,000 in outstanding student loan debt, which is below the Congressional average of $37,000. Needless to say, AOC is in favor of student loan forgiveness, pointing out in a Tweet that, "Very wealthy people already have a student loan forgiveness program. It’s called their parents."

    5. Cheryl Strayed

    Caption: I paid my way through college by working, getting grants, and student loans. My student loan debt was a beast on my back until my 44th birthday
    Amy E. Price / Getty Images

    Profession: Writer (her most notable works include Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar).

    Alma Maters: University of Minnesota (B.A. in English and women's studies, 1991); Syracuse University (M.F.A. in fiction writing, 2002).

    On student loan debt: When Strayed sold Wild, she and her husband had incurred $85,000 in credit card debt. On Twitter, Strayed noted that they were "buried in student loan debt well into our forties (we both grew up poor/working class with families who couldn’t/didn’t contribute any $ to our college educations)." The advance she got for Wild allowed Strayed to pay off her student loan debt from her undergraduate degree on her 44th birthday. (Her M.F.A. at Syracuse was fully funded.) The author celebrated the momentous occasion with a sushi dinner.

    6. Miles Teller

    Caption: I still very much have my NYU loans
    Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images

    Profession: Actor

    Alma Mater: New York University Tisch School of the Arts (B.F.A. in drama, 2009).

    On student loan debt: Despite the fact that he is successful enough to have a "business manager" (while I am not successful enough to know what a business manager is), Teller said in 2015 that due to low interest rates, he was told that there is "no sense" in paying off his NYU loans, unless he wanted to "have that badge of accomplishment."

    7. Gina Rodriguez

    Caption: I paid it off last year on the day I got nominated for my second Golden Globe
    Getty / Frazer Harrison

    Profession: Actor

    Alma Mater: New York University Tisch School of the Arts (B.F.A. in drama, 2005).

    On student loan debt: During a 2017 interview on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Rodriguez shocked the late-night host by telling him that she'd only recently finished paying off her student loans as a 32-year-old, after graduating at the age of 21. Colbert asked, "A TV star with a hit show took 11 years to pay off her student loans?" Rodriguez replied, "Yeah, dude! NYU is so expensive; college education is so expensive but so necessary."

    8. Kerry Washington

    "I'm here, not just as an actress, but as a person who could not have afforded college without the help of student loans"
    Jason Kempin / Getty Images

    Profession: Actor

    Alma Mater: George Washington University (B.A. in anthropology and sociology, 1998).

    On student loan debt: While addressing the Democratic National Convention in 2012, Washington described herself as, "a person who could not have afforded college without the help of student loans." A 2016 profile stated that Washington was unable to pay off those loans until she was cast in Scandal.

    9. Roxane Gay

    Caption: Repayment seemed like a vague, distant concept in large part because I could not fathom being able to repay such staggering amounts of money.
    Presley Ann / Getty Images for Hammer Museum

    Profession: Writer (her most notable works include Bad Feminist and Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body)

    Alma Maters: Norwich University (B.A., 1999); University of Nebraska, Lincoln (M.F.A. in creative writing); Michigan Technological University (PhD in rhetoric and technical communication, 2010).

    On student loan debt: In a November 2020 op-ed about student loan forgiveness, Gay wrote that every month, she "pay[s] $1,000 to the federal government. My balance has hovered around $140,000 for the past 10 years because most of each payment goes toward the interest." While she noted that she is lucky in that she can afford to pay her loans, they are nevertheless "always looming on the periphery of my life, influencing every fiscal decision I make."

    10. Pete Buttigieg

    Caption: "Between the teacher training programs Chasten was in as well as his bachelor's and master's, it's left us with a lot of debt"
    Paras Griffin / Getty Images for ESSENCE

    Profession: Former mayor and presidential candidate, current Secretary of Transportation

    Alma Maters: Harvard University (B.A. in history and literature, 2004); University of Oxford (B.A. in philosophy, politics, and economics).

    On student loan debt: While campaigning for the presidential nomination, Buttigieg shared that he and his husband Chasten had more than $130,000 in student loan debt. In an interview with Vice, Buttigieg noted that while he graduated from college without much debt, the advanced degrees Chasten required to become a teacher resulted in a significantly higher balance.

    11. Kate Walsh

    "The only way I was, honestly, able to pay off my student loans was at age 37, because I happened to get on a big, fat TV show"
    Jason Laveris / FilmMagic / Getty Images

    Profession: Actor

    Alma Mater: University of Arizona (studied theater, but did not graduate).

    On student loan debt: During an interview with Refinery29, Walsh said that she left school with "just thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars in debt." The accrued interest was so significant that she was unable to pay them off until she was cast on Grey's Anatomy as a 37-year-old.

    12. Cecil Shorts III

    Caption: I didn't think much of it at the time, but instead of getting those scholarship checks, we'd have jobs in the offseason"
    Sam Greenwood / Getty Images

    Profession: Retired NFL athlete (wide receiver for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers).

    Alma Mater: University of Mount Union (B.A. in health and physical education, 2011).

    On student loan debt: In 2012, Shorts said that he believed he was the only NFL player with student loans, since most of his fellow players got athletic scholarships. He said that he had around $50,000 left to pay for his education at Mount Union, an Ohio college that is a powerhouse in NCAA Division III football. Shorts drew a contrast between college athletes who play "in front of 100,000 people every week" and those from smaller schools who are "used to buying [their] own gloves and cleats."

    13. Martin O'Malley

    Caption: "I'm blessed with strong-willed women in my life. I wanted my daughters to go in-state. But I lost the vote.”
    Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

    Profession: Former governor and presidential candidate

    Alma Maters: O'Malley and his wife took out loans for their daughters' educations at Georgetown University and the College of Charleston.

    On student loan debt: While campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, O'Malley said that his family has a balance of more than $339,200 in student loan debt, most of which is made up of parent PLUS loans, which currently have an interest rate of 5.3%. O'Malley said that while he wanted his daughters to attend school in-state, he "lost the vote."