• When Juan Antonio Sorto moved to America at age six, he began learning that education was the path to the American Dream.
  • To achieve that dream, he took on what is now a $250,000 student-debt load.
  • He wants an answer on Biden’s plan to address the crisis: “If you’re going to do something, then do it.”

Juan Antonio Sorto thought his education would end after high school.

His family moved to Houston from El Salvador when he was 6, and Sorto, now 36, faced the challenge of navigating a completely new culture while maintaining his Latino roots. He said part of that was viewing high school “as the end goal to your education.”

But Sorto ended up with a different plan. At a college fair his senior year of high school, he realized higher education could be a reality for him. He attended a local university, thanks in part to Pell grants, scholarships for low-income students. Then, to progress in his chosen career as a probation officer, he sought a Master’s degree, and later a Ph.D.

He now has $250,513 in student debt.

“I had to continue to provide for my mother and my grandmother, and so I had no choice but to start accumulating debt,” Sorto told Insider. “It’s the price I had to pay to achieve the American Dream.”

While Sorto knows he voluntarily took on debt, experts agree the student-loan system is confusing and bureaucratic. It can lead borrowers seeking financial assistance on their education down a road of compounding interest and a lifetime of debt. 

Juan Antonio Sorto

Juan Antonio Sorto, 36, is a first-generation college student with $250,000 in debt.

Juan Antonio Sorto

The $1.7 trillion student-debt crisis grows each day, and data shows that it disproportionately impacts Latino borrowers and other communities of color. Scholarships for low-income students and loan-forgiveness programs for public servants barely make a dent in the lifelong debt millions of people carry in pursuit of the American Dream.

And even though President Joe Biden has extended the pause on student-loan payments until May 1, pressure is ramping up for him to cancel debt — an issue he prioritized in his presidential campaign but has been largely silent on since.

While student loans are the only form of debt Sorto has ever had, he said he sees no end in sight.

“My family will be okay, but I’m not going to be okay because that loan is under my name,” Sorto said. “That’s the price I was willing to pay for my family to be financially secure.”

‘I believed in my heart that college was the American Dream’

After moving to Houston, one of Sorto’s first memories is going with his family to a buffet-style restaurant. He said he was so in awe at the range of food options that he got seven trays just for himself. That’s just one example of how his family had to adjust to the American way of life.

Sorto’s father was not in his life growing up. For most of his early education, he took care of his younger sister while his mother worked at night. He also picked up side jobs to help support his mother, sister, and his grandma, who still lives in El Salvador.

Living in America to Sorto meant going to college — something no one in his family had done before — and although his mother did not see the importance in doing so, he said, “I believed in my heart that college was the American Dream.”

But it’s not a dream that works out for everyone: 72% of Latino students take out loans for their education, compared with 66% of white borrowers, according to the Student Borrower Protection Center. Twelve years after starting college, the average Latino borrower still owes 83% of their initial loan balance, compared to 65% for white borrowers. 

Juan Antonio Sorto with his mother and grandmother.

Juan Antonio Sorto with his mother and grandmother.

Juan Antonio Sorto

“College was viewed as a luxury,” Sorto said. “And because my mother did not have an understanding of how much of a difference having a college degree would be to our livelihood, she was adamant on me pursuing a trade degree, a mechanical degree, an electrician degree or something that was a six-month or yearlong course.”

Sorto ended up achieving his goal — he served as a probation officer for 12 years using his bachelor’s degree. However, he joined the Great Resignation last year because the “mental exhaustion and stress” became too much. He’s now pursuing a Ph.D. — a process he started while he was working as a probation officer — and a new job as a community developer in low-income neighborhoods. Even with his student debt load, he believes he accomplished his goals.

“I can at least feel happy to know that the chains within my family, within the generations that I can trace, have finally been broken where we’re no longer going to be looked upon as uneducated, poor people,” Sorto said.

Sorto is proud of the life his education has given him and his family, despite the student debt that came with it. But what he didn’t know when he was getting seven trays of food at the buffet is the student-loan system is also an “all-you-can-eat” industry — the government and lenders make it easy to take out loans, but that doesn’t mean it’s in the borrower’s best interest.

The student-loan industry is ‘so freaking confusing’ — and requires reform

Sorto called the process to get assistance paying off his debt “so freaking confusing,” and he’s not alone. For decades, lawmakers and advocates have been scrutinizing student-loan companies over misleading behavior that can keep borrowers paying off debt longer than they should.

For example, Insider spoke to three federal borrowers in July who were struggling to pay off their debt, but they weren’t asking for loan forgiveness — they were simply asking student-loan companies to pick up the phone and help them.

“Nobody wants to assist you,” one borrower told Insider. “And you don’t know how to get help. Even though you go back and forth, the lender doesn’t know what the servicer is doing and the servicer doesn’t know what the lender is doing.”

Lawmakers have been keeping tabs on the issue, as well. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren told Insider in July that “the world has changed for student-loan-debt servicers,” adding that they “can’t sign a contract, do a lousy job, cost borrowers tons of money, and still get their contracts renewed.” Warren’s comments came after PHEAA, one of the largest student-loan companies accused of engaging in misleading behavior, announced plans to end its federal loan servicing contract.

But reforms to the industry are in the works. Federal Student Aid head Richard Cordray warned student-loan companies that if they do not adhere to higher standards to better serve borrowers, they will face consequences — and Sorto wants to ensure the administration will follow through on that. 

“Quit politicizing my livelihood,” Sorto said. “This is not a game, and I feel like that’s what it’s become to them. If you’re going to do something, then do it, and stop playing political games.”

Do you have a story to share about student debt? Reach out to Ayelet Sheffey at [email protected]

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