“I had really good professors who were for the most part really understanding, but it was too much,” she said. “It was a tumultuous time.”

Ms. Summers-Polite withdrew from her classes in spring 2012 with a medical note that prevented her from receiving failing grades, but the debt had already begun to accumulate.

She said she had deferred her payments as long as she could, which meant the unpaid interest was tacked on to her balance. Then she borrowed more in the summer of 2013, when she returned to take a few more classes. After that, she took a two-year break to work, which provided much-needed health insurance after she was no longer eligible for her parents’ plan.

Ms. Summers-Polite, who lives in Miami, gave schooling another try in 2016, but once an attractive job opportunity arose — communications director for the activist group — she took it, and hasn’t returned. She said she was making good money now, but her loans had already fallen into default, and getting out isn’t as simple as starting to send monthly payments again.

Ms. Summers-Polite was married in November, and her husband, a spa coordinator at a large gym, has $27,000 in debt of his own. He just went back to school after a 10-year break, and is taking out more loans to pay for it.

She would like to finish her degree, too, but isn’t in a position to pay out of pocket for classes, particularly with the pandemic pause on payments set to end later this year and her enormous debt looming.

“In the past few years, it has been this glaring thing in my periphery,” she said, “getting bigger and bigger.”

Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

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