PORTLAND, Maine — Katherine Hulit graduated from the University of Southern Maine in May with a degree in philosophy and women and gender studies and $19,564 in student loan debt. Hulit, 28, said she has no idea when she will be able to fully pay off what she owes for her education.
And Hulit isn’t alone. In 2010, 67 percent of graduating American college students had some student loan debt. In April of 2012, American student loan debt topped $1 trillion.
But despite the anxiety of beginning her post-college life with hefty debt, Hulit, considers herself lucky.
“Twenty thousand dollars is a lot, but most of my friends are at least $30,000 or $40,000 in debt,” she said.
Hulit’s debt is nothing to take lightly, but she may have cause to count herself relatively lucky. In 2011, USM graduates held an average debt of $38,899, the second-highest average student loan debt in Maine, a state whose 2011 college graduates held the dubious honor of having some of the highest average debt in the country. At $29,983 per graduate, Maine’s average is second only to New Hampshire.
The average amounts of student loan debt refer only to students whose loans came from not-for-profit institutions. According to a report published by the The Project on Student Debt, based out of Washington, D.C., and Oakland, Calif., too few for-profit institutions report the information necessary to compile accurate data or average debt for students and graduates of those institutions.
Hannah Cyrus, 22, of Orono graduated from Bowdoin College with an English degree. Cyrus owes $15,000, along with some interest that has accrued since she began borrowing. Including tuition, fees and room and board, Bowdoin costs about $58,198 per year.
Despite the fact Cyrus went to an elite, private liberal arts college, her relatively low amount of debt is close to the average — $18,229 in 2010 — of Bowdoin graduates, whereas Hulit’s debt from USM is well below that of her average classmates. This points to an interesting trend, at least in Maine, students often graduate from more expensive private schools with lower debt than their peers at public state schools.
“I think it’s really unfair that people who go to public universities are in any amount of debt,” said Cyrus. “The fact that a lot of people who went to public schools are in more debt than I am just seems really unacceptable to me.”
According to Lauren Asher, president of the Oakland, Calif.-based Institute for College Access and Success, students who are deciding on a school should look not just at the “sticker price” of a given institution, but also the net price, which includes tuition, fees, books, transportation and the cost of room and board on campus or off.
“Issues of aid eligibility, how much aid you qualify for at the federal level, what kind of students schools are trying to recruit — all those things affect what you would personally end up having to borrow, earn or save to afford that school,” Asher said. “So net price is really what consumers need to be able to compare to be able to tell if one school will end up costing more than another.”
Asher said consumer knowledge can be helpful in ensuring students borrow as little as possible, and with the lowest interest rates. According to Cyrus, learning from her older sister’s experiences with student loans helped her make decisions about how much and which loans to seek.
“My sister helped me a lot in the decision process, like she’d tell me if a school was giving good financial aid,” said Cyrus, who now lives with her sister outside of Boston and is working at a publishing company through December.
Hulit and Cyrus are among the majority of Maine college graduates who hold loan debt. With 68 percent of college students in Maine graduating with student loan debt in 2011, the state again tops the charts with the seventh-highest proportion of indebted graduates.
Maine’s levels of student loan debt may be higher than average, but a surge in the amount of student loan debt has been a national trend over the last decade. Between 2000 and 2011, the amount of federal financial aid, in the form of both loans and grants, leapt from $64 billion to $169 billion, or a 164 percent increase over 10 years.
According to a September 2012 report published by the National Association of Financial Aid Administrators, a trade group, 72 percent of all financial aid that students received in the 2010-2011 school year, $235 billion in total, came under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965.
Financial aid packages at colleges generally are made up of a combination of grants — both federal and disbursed by the student’s school — and student loans. The most common federal grant is the the Pell Grant, given to low-income students, which provided $34.8 billion in the 2010-2011 school year; the Federal Work-Study Program provides funds for student jobs on campus. Institutions generally must contribute 25 percent of the wages paid to students.
Then there are the loans, the names of which may be all too familiar in the minds of students, graduates and parents who have helped their children navigate the financial aid process. There are the low-interest Federal Perkins Loans, which provided $970,000 million between 2010 and 2011. Perkins Loans are subsidized by the federal government, meaning borrowers do not accrue interest on the loans until after graduation. The Direct Stafford Loan, disbursed by the federal government, is another low-interest funding source which is offered to students both subsidized and unsubsidized. Together, subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford Loans provided $85.8 billion to borrowers between 2010 and 2011.
If federal loans don’t cover the cost of tuition, fees, room and board, students have the option of taking out private loans, which often have much higher interest rates than federal loans and offer the borrowers fewer options and less flexibility for paying back the loan. TheProject on Student Debt, which issues reports compiling and analyzing data on student loan debt, called private loans “one of the riskiest ways to pay for college.”
“We don’t really consider these to be financial aid,” said Asher, whose organization oversees the Project on Student Debt. “If you use a credit card to pay for school, would that be considered financial aid?”
Annie Monroe, 22, of Orono is another young Mainer who will soon be in debt. Monroe will graduate in December from the University of Maine with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in studio arts and a little more than $18,000 in debt, about $11,000 less than the average UMaine debt of $29,143.
Monroe, who is living in Portland before returning to Orono in the fall, said she worries about paying back her loans on top of living expenses once she has graduated.
“In my field, I need to live somewhere like Portland, somewhere with an urban atmosphere, because that’s where there’s art communities,” she said. “But then it’s more expensive to live there. And an extra $200 a month; I can’t even imagine that.”
High levels of student loan debt would be a strain on individuals under any circumstance, but in a struggling economy plagued by sluggish job growth, it becomes just one more hurdle graduates must leap as they start their lives and careers following college. As the economy continues to stumble its way out of the recession, progress may appear slow to young adults of the millennial generation, dubbed “Generation Screwed” in a recent Daily Beast article.
“Student debt is just one side of the equation where there’s been very high unemployment and underemployment of people just getting out of college,” said Michael Hillard, an economics professor at USM. Hillard said the ability to quickly find a well-paying job in a graduate’s field is less attainable than just eight or 10 years ago, making it more difficult for people to pay off their increasingly high student loan debt.
The national unemployment rate in July hovered at 8.3 percent, down from its high point at 10.2 percent in October 2009. For 18- to 29-year-olds, however, the unemployment rate was at 12.7 percent.
“The real heart of the matter is people do not have full-time, meaningful jobs in career paths of their choice that allow them to pay back their loans,” said Paul T. Conway, president of Generation Opportunity, an advocacy group working to organize young people around issues of employment and economic growth.
“This is a highly motivated generation, and we don’t think people have given up looking for work so much as we firmly believe people are looking very diligently and just not finding economic opportunities,” he said.
Graduates generally have a six-month grace period before they must begin paying back federal student loans, and payment options allow graduates to stop repaying their debt temporarily if they aren’t working or aren’t making enough money. But you can’t defer payment forever, and high unemployment levels do not bode well for recent college graduates.
Hulit, who lives in Portland, has not yet found a full-time job and said she worries about being able to make payments on her loans, which already have accrued $410 in interest since she first began borrowing.
“Basically my plan right now is to take whatever job I can get,” Hulit said.
She currently has a temporary data entry job, but she said it will only last two or three weeks, after which her job search will continue. Hulit said she has applied for 10-15 positions since finishing school.
“I’m getting very discouraged,” she said. “It’s very frustrating that the only jobs available seem to be jobs I had prior to my graduation.”
Estimated annual costs of selected Maine colleges
University of Maine:
Out of state: $39,866
In state: $23,006
University of Southern Maine:
Out of state: $31,756
In state: $19,396
University of Maine-Farmington:
Out of state: $26,679
In state: $17,591
University of Maine-Fort Kent:
Out of state: $26,585
In state: $16,625
University of Maine-Presque Isle:
Out of state: $25,098
In state: $15,158
University of Maine-Machias:
Out of state: $27,200
In state: $15,380
University of Maine-Augusta:
Out of state: $16,688
In state: $7,448
University of New England: