Debbie Baker took out $35,000 in federal student loans while at the University of Tulsa in the 1990s, to become a music teacher in Oklahoma's public schools.
She didn't know how she was going to make her monthly student loan payments on a new teacher's salary, though.
"I graduated and I got a bill for $500, but I was only making $27,000 a year," Baker, 55, said.
Navient, previously Sallie Mae and currently one of the biggest loan servicers, encouraged her to put her loans into forbearance, she said.
Her loans stayed that way for three years. When she had to start making payments on them, her monthly bill had swelled to $700, she said.
Persis Yu, director of the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project at the National Consumer Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy group, said the student loan system is structured in a way that encourages people's debt to balloon.
"Loans doubling, tripling, quadrupling, it really does happen all the time," Yu said.
Outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. has tripled over the last decade, surpassing auto and credit card debt and only second to housing debt, and now stands at $1.5 trillion. That's in part because many people are seeing their individual balances spiral out of control.