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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Graduating College With $120K In Student Loan Debt

Kelsey Griffith of Ottawa, OH, graduates on Sunday from Ohio Northern University with $120,000 in debt. (Courtesy Kelsey Griffith)

College students graduating this month are leaving school with more than their degree. They also have record levels of student loan debt.

In 2011, the average student loan debt for all borrowers was $23,300. Ten percent owe more than $54,000 dollars, and three percent owe more than $100,000 dollars. That amounts to more than one million people owing six figures for their education.

Student Faces $900 Monthly Payments

Among them is 23-year-old Kelsey Griffith of Ottawa, Ohio, who graduates on Sunday from Ohio Northern University with a degree in marketing.

She has about $120,000 in student loans, and her monthly payments of about $900 begin in two months. She’s working two restaurant jobs and doing some marketing for a photographer, in order to make those payments.

“I felt that just because my parents didn’t make a lot of money, that I should still be able to go to a great university like Ohio Northern,” Griffith told Here & Now‘s Robin Young. “I was really stubborn. I wanted to go to college wherever I wanted. I wasn’t going to let anyone tell me I couldn’t.”

Ohio Northern Grads Among Most Indebted In Country

At Ohio Northern, tuition and fees, room and board and living expenses total about $48,000.

Recent graduates from the school are among the most indebted of any college in the country. According to 2010 data, students graduate from Ohio Northern with an average of $48,886 in debt. But Griffith said she’s optimistic that she’ll find a way to pay it off.

“I know I am in a lot of debt right now. And that is kind of scary, especially now that it’s become real for me. But I am really confident that the good education I got at the amazing school that Ohio Northern is, you know, I’ll be able to find a job soon and get my loans paid off little by little,” she said.

‘A Perfect Storm For Graduates’

Grace Bartini, ombudsman for American Student Assistance, at Here & Now studios at WBUR in Boston. (Jesse Costa / Here & Now)

“The high cost of college, the borrowing and the fact that people can’t get jobs — it’s just a perfect storm for the graduates now, as well as the older students and the parents,” American Student Assistance ombudsman Grace Bartini said. The group helps people manage and pay off their student debt

“It’s very important for people who are thinking about where to go right now and how they’re going to finance their education — they have to think about what they’re getting into,” she said.

“But we have to remember, going to college and making that decision — especially if you heard Kelsey, her family doesn’t make a lot of money — it’s a dream. It’s very emotional. It’s a way to fulfill the American dream,” she said.

Bartini says families have to remove the emotions from their decision-making process and look at it with “with common sense and some responsibility.”

“At the end of the day, the colleges want the students to enroll. And they have a way for them to pay, and that’s through loans. So the responsibility does really end up with the families,” she said.

The responsibility for making sure students do make smart financial decisions lies jointly with the Department of Education, the colleges and the families, Bartini said.

Not Just Young People Struggling

It’s not just young people struggling with student loan debt. Parents are taking on their debt as well, and some have debt of their own. Last week, we spoke to 58-year-old Sandy Barnett in Illinois, whose wages are being garnished as a result of defaulting on her federal student loans from the 1980s. She originally took out $21,000 in loans, but the amount has since ballooned to more than twice that. She now struggles to afford her basic living expenses like food and the gas she needs to get to work.

We put Sandy in touch with Bartini at American Student Assistance. Sandy is now working with the U.S. Department of Education to get her loans out of default, as well as apply for an income-based repayment plan.

Bartini said she believes that Sandy will be able to rehabilitate her loans and get back into good standing.

“The good news is the federal [loan] programs – the U.S. Department of Education – realizes that people are struggling. And the key is for people to know what their options are, and match those options with what their needs are.” Bartini said. “[Sandy's] payments were too high. And one of the things she’s going to do, and can do, is apply for financial hardship. She had tried to do that, so her payments would be lower than the 15 percent, but she hadn’t completed all of the documentation.”

Bartini said there are resources available that should prevent borrowers, like graduating senior Kelsey Griffith, from defaulting on their loans in the first place.

Griffith could also be eligible for an income-based repayment plan, if she ends up struggling to make payments on her federal loans. There are fewer options available for repaying private loans, Bartini said.

Note: An earlier version of this story cited a New York Times analysis of the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education, reporting that 94 percent of students who earn a bachelors degree borrow money to pay for it. That statistic has since been retracted by the Times.

Guest:

  • Kelsey Griffith, graduating senior
  • Grace Bartini, ombudsman for American Student Assistance

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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