They live with their parents, work grueling hours and toil in corporate jobs before pursuing their dreams. Many of this year’s 30 Under 30 honorees say student debt shaped the path of their early careers.
We asked all 754 people on Forbes’ 2021 list whether they graduated from college with student loans. Of the 558 who responded, 218, or 39%, said yes. That’s far less than college graduates nationwide. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, in 2019, 62% of U.S. grads had student loans. The average debt: $29,200. The list members who responded to the student loan question reported graduating with a total of $11 million in debt. They have paid off half of that amount.
How do the high achievers on the Forbes list balance their loan obligations with their ambitions?
“It’s really difficult when right as you graduate you have a huge bill that you have to pay every month,” says Stephen Smith, 27, an honoree on the healthcare list who has paid off half of his $50,000 debt load from his undergraduate years at Trinity University and Pomona College. “Especially early on, your stressors are all about how do I keep surviving? It would have been much easier without the student debt.”
Smith saved by commuting an hour and a half each way from his parents’ house north of Chicago to his online therapy startup NOCD’s downtown office for its first year. It didn’t leave him much free time after 12-hour days at work, but he could get started on his loan payments with the money he didn’t spend on rent.
Smith is one of 83 list members who said student debt affected how or when they started their business.
Rachel Luba, 28, says her $250,000 in law school debt from Pepperdine University made it tough to start her own Maple Valley, Washington-based Luba Sports agency in 2019. Her clients include Cincinnati Reds star Trevor Bauer, who won the Cy Young award as the best pitcher in the National League in November 2020. She’s helping him negotiate a free agency contract this winter that could be worth nine figures if he takes a long-term deal.
Luba has paid down $100,000 of her debt by working 10- to 14-hour days and going it alone with no employees. Most agents have staff who help clients find housing in new cities or who land smaller endorsement deals, but Luba wants to make more of a dent in her debt before she cuts back on her hours or pays for help.
“I have to be very selective with who I bring on and can’t just expand and bring in all the clients that I’ve had an opportunity to because of that debt,” she says. “I need liquid cash to be able to go travel and recruit, so it’s a tough balance. Do I pay it all off in a lump sum, or do I drag it out and accrue interest at a 7% rate, which sucks?”
Aly Murray, 26, paid off most of the money she borrowed to pay for her 2016 undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania during two years as a sales and trading analyst at JPMorgan. Shortly after graduation, she also cofounded UPchieve, a free online tutoring platform for low-income students, working nights and weekends.
By 2018, she had saved enough to work full-time on the nonprofit and took no salary for a few months while it grew.
“I didn’t take any vacations while I worked at JPMorgan those two years,” she says. “It was really, really hard to eventually decide to leave because I knew I was giving up financial security. I didn’t have a safety net.”
The work Madison Guy did to graduate from the University of British Columbia debt-free led her to start the nonprofit that secured her a spot on this year’s education list. She spent years researching and landing grants and scholarships that paid for her degree. In 2017, the 26-year-old cofounded GrantMe, which has matched students with more than $3 million in scholarships to Canadian colleges. She’s hoping to expand to the U.S. market by early 2022.
Private schools in the U.S. are much more expensive than Canada’s public institutions. But they give students access to valuable networks. Aditya Kaddu, 29, who paid off his $90,000 in debt from Stanford Business School with the help of a consulting job at McKinsey before founding school administration startup Edstruments last year, said some of his investors were Stanford classmates and a professor.
In addition to asking about student debt and how they managed it, we looked at where this year’s Under 30 honorees earned their degrees. A large number graduated from elite schools.
The greatest number, 55, graduated from Stanford, and 46 from Harvard. Here are the top 10 most represented schools on the list.
- Stanford University
- Harvard University
- University of Pennsylvania
- Yale University
- University of California, Berkeley
- New York University
- Columbia University
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- University of Southern California
- Northwestern University; University of California, Los Angeles (tie)