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Drowning in debt: More students in debt and at higher rates than ever before

Published: Sunday, Oct. 9 2011 10:16 p.m. MDT

The study, which examined 3,079 young adults ages 18 to 27, found that younger adults and those from lower socioeconomic statuses viewed their debt more positively.

"The groups that most need the debt – the middle and lower classes – get the most benefits to their self-concept," Dwyer said, "but may also face the greatest difficulties in paying off what they owe. Debt can be a positive resource for young adults, but it comes with some significant dangers."

She said the students from her research were studied before the economic downturn, though, so she feels there needs to be more research conducted in the future on attitudes and debt.

Allen Merrell, a senior at Brigham Young University, said while he doesn't feel "cool" taking out a loan, he does feel more like a responsible adult.

Long Term Impact

Debbie Frankle Cochrane worries about how much debt students are getting into.

The program director for The Institute for College Access & Success, based in Oakland, Calif., said students who leave college with a lot of debt may delay other important choices in life like buying a house, starting a family and having children, which, she said, could have negative implications for the economy, families and society as a whole.

The future does not look much brighter as far as the number of loans go, though.

Just recently the government eliminated Pell grants for summer semesters. At the same time, states, too, are pulling back resources to higher education, causing most to raise tuition. And Kantrowitz says these compounding factors of grants decreasing and tuition increasing causes colleges to become less affordable.

He said at the rate students are borrowing and considering the fact that more students are taking out alternate repayment plans, many graduates today will still be paying off their student loans when their children go to college, which "will have a cascading effect into the next decade or two."

What Can Be Done

While Kantrowitz believes more students understand the meaning of going into debt, most still don't understand the full implications, he said.

Michelle Branhart of Oregon State University believes this comes partly from a society that has deemed certain credit as always being "good credit." For instance, she said, before the housing market crash, a mortgage was always seen as "good credit." Everyone thought prices of homes would continue to go up and thus it was almost always worth it to go into debt to buy a home.

She said society may need to also rethink the idea that student debt is always "good debt."

While there is pressure from parents and policymakers for everyone to go to college, she said some students have no idea what they want to get out of college and should first figure that out before getting into loads of debt.

"Lots of students are taking on debt, but have no real sense of what they are doing or how they are going to repay their debt," Barnhart said. "They would be better off taking time off and working and deciding what they want to do."

Students also need to be taught more about debt, Barnhart said. She found in an in-depth study released in March of 27 young, male middle-class Americans that all of the participants had learned about credit card use and debt primarily through personal experience.

Kantrowitz suggests that students don't take out more debt in college than what their starting salary will be. "Ideally, it should be a lot less," he said.

For instance if your starting salary from a certain degree is expected to be $40,000 a year, a student should take out a maximum of $10,000 a year.

He also said students need to realize that by the time they pay back their loan, it's probably going to cost them about $2 for every dollar they borrowed.

"Live like a student while in school, so you don't have to after you are done," he says.

Back in New York, Hatfield continues to struggle to make her payments even with a huge loan. She also feels like she will be living "like a student" for a long time.

She has considered different options like working for the government for several years to pay off her loan or drawing out her payments. But she figures, at least for her, it will be worth it.

"By getting this degree, I am probably going to be living in poverty, but once I have this education, no one can take it away," Hatfield said. "To me, education is the best investment because you can't lose it."

EMAIL: slenz@desnews.com. TWIITER: saralenz

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