Editor’s note: In this monthly series, the authors introduce you to people who are apt to be your neighbors, are struggling to make ends meet and have been affected by specific state policies. To share your story, write to Sandy.Butler@umit.maine.eduor call 581-2382.
The total amount of studentdebt in the U.S. is greater than $1.2 trillion. Seven in 10 college grads owe money, according to the Project on Student Debt, an initiative of the Institute for College Access and Success.
Graduates of public and private colleges in Maine have the seventh highest average student loan debt in the nation. Among 2012 Maine college graduates, 67 percent have loans; the average amount is $30,000.
This outstanding debt is, in most part, because of rising college costs. Over the past three decades, college costs have risen 250 percent, while average family incomes have risen 16 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
One might ask if this amount of debt is worth it.
The students we interviewed all said yes, despite the tremendous hurdles they face in paying back their loans. Their optimism is supported by The Project on Student Debt, which reports that in 2012, a typical worker with a bachelor’s degree earned 79 percent more than a worker with a high school diploma — almost $18,000 more per year.
Workers who have earned a college degree are three times more likely to be employed than their peers with only a high school education. And, importantly, by 2018, the U.S. will need 22 million more college-educated workers.
Over the past month, we talked with several past and current college students of the University of Southern Maine, which costs an average of $8,920 per year, plus books, room and board.
Jules Purnell, 28, was accepted into college soon after graduating from high school, but the claim of “no eligibility” for any financial assistance caused Jules to withdraw before even starting.
At age 25, knowing a high school education would not go far professionally, Jules made a conscious decision to go to a community college first because it was cheaper and overhead costs could be kept low. Jules is at USM, taking classes full-time, completing both a double-major and minor, and working two part-time jobs that average about 35 hours per week.
At present, Jules’s debt amount is $17,568. By the time graduation arrives in spring 2015, that amount will have increased.
When asked about the debt already incurred, Jules immediately talked about the fear of “not being able to pay it off in a reasonable time period” and about the ramifications of that debt for future purchases — a house, for example.
Since being in school, Jules has always heard, and been told, that “if you are bright and talented, you can do well.” Jules is bright and talented but noted that it is a “big deal to take on so much debt. … I have never had credit cards, no car loan. … I don’t buy anything I can’t pay off.”
But for this generation, “This [debt] is a fact.”
Jules, like many others, acknowledged that a college education is very important. Jules has worked since the age of 15 and, in all jobs thus far, has been paid a maximum of $10 or $11 per hour. Jules knows that investing in oneself is key but is still worried about pursuing a dream to become a college professor without falling “too far under financially.”
Others echoed Jules’ sentiments. One 33-year-old student with $45,000 in student debt described feeling “incredibly depressed and powerless when faced with my debt.”
But she also doesn’t regret going to school.
“I can’t even imagine regretting incurring such a massive student debt. I would not be the person I am today without having learned from such fantastic professors,” she said. “They have given me my life back after years of struggling to find a voice.”
“As someone who has grown up with limited means, my only chance at an education was incurring a massive debt.”
A former student, who lives in Portland, spoke about the difficulty she has had keeping up with loan repayments after graduating from an accelerated master’s degree program. She is employed full-time in her field and owes about $79,000, split between private and government loans.
When she reached out to her student loan company, “to make a payment arrangement to rehabilitate my loan so it would go back under the administration of the government,” a collection agency began an administrative wage garnishment of her paycheck, resulting in a $100-decrease per week in her take-home pay.
“They informed me that they will not lift the garnishment until I make nine months of payments towards the loan on top of that. Now my total payment [including garnishment] is $634.98 — more than double my portion of rent,” she said.
“This only concerns my federal loans, not my Sallie Mae loans, which are still in collection and are more than half my total debt. I haven’t called them yet because I just am not sure how I could pay them anything at this point.”
She and her partner had recently started talking about getting married. After the wage garnishment, the discussion has been tabled indefinitely.
While these students have different stories, they will all confront the same restrictions in their lives as a result of the student debt they have incurred, namely limited choices to buy a home, start a family or business, and invest in their future.
Numerous studies show that student debt affects not just individual lives but the entire economy. People only have so much “debt capacity.”
We have seen this clearly in Maine. Over the decades, the disinvestment by the state in public higher education has been significant. Tuition increases are beyond the rate of inflation. Both have led to an explosion of student debt.
Student debt can have serious consequences. A recent Demos report notes: “Over a lifetime of employment and saving, $53,000 in education debt leads to a wealth loss of almost $208,000.”
We know that an educated workforce will be required to advance both our state and this nation. We must, however, work to insure that access to and completion of a college education can be obtained with as little debt as possible. Our futures depend on it.
Sandy Butler is professor of social work and is the graduate program coordinator in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine. Luisa S. Deprez is professor and department chair of sociology and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine. They are members of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.