In a 2019 poll conducted by the opinion and market research company SSRS for The Pew Charitable Trusts, 7 in 10 Americans said that taking out a student loan is a reasonable choice given the benefits of a college degree, but 89 percent also expressed concern about people’s ability to repay those debts. And they have reason to worry: Nearly 20 percent of the nation’s 43 million federal student loan borrowers are in default—which is typically defined as having gone at least 270 days without a payment—and millions more are behind on their payments.

Research has provided insight into the characteristics of borrowers who have the most difficulty repaying their student loans, but less is known about why they struggle and about their personal experiences with the repayment process. This knowledge gap makes it difficult for policymakers to get a full picture of why some people successfully navigate the repayment system while others fall off track, or to readily identify which current policies might not be working as intended and what reforms are needed to better support borrowers.