Special Segment: A Degree in Debt

October 4, 2011 (CHICAGO)

It's a real life lesson in economics. Jobs are tight and student loan defaults are on the rise. Many parents can no longer afford to pay for college expenses, so those students are on their own. They are racking up big college loan bills - at the age of 18 - that are now haunting them long after graduation.

It's a burden that Tara Fletcher carries every day.

"When I first learned how much student loan debt I had, jumping in front of a bus sounded way better than dealing with how much you owed," said Fletcher.

The amount she owes is staggering: $105,000. All of it is from her college accounting degree at a state university in New York which seemed like a good idea at the time.

"They drill it in your head in high school, need to go to college, need to go to college and other people get student loans and you think, well, other people have it, they have to deal with it. I'm gonna have to deal with it," said Fletcher.

So the 26-year-old now juggles at least two jobs to pay back seven different lenders. She'll likely do that for a long time. At the current rate, she'll be done in 17 years. She'll be 42.

"There's been a rapid increase in the proportion of college grads that have very large college debt," said Lauren Asher, Institute for College Access & Success.

Asher researches college student debt. She's found that one in 10 college grads is now carrying student loans of more than $40,000 because more students are paying for college on their own.

"Families that in the past have counted on home equity or salaries and have suffered a job loss are struggling to figure out how to pay for college," said Asher.

And when you look at those with the highest student loan debt by race and ethnicity, African-Americans are the most likely to graduate with high debt. Sixteen percent of black college graduates do.

Charity Carter owes more than $60,000 in college debt. The Chicago physical education teacher is looking at nearly 20 more years of loan payments. She's barely made a dent in her loan balance.

"I feel like I've been paying forever, and I'll continue to pay forever," said Carter.

Financial aid advisors say the worst thing you can do is simply stop paying it.

"Don't default on your student loan, that sticks with you forever. Defaulting prohibits students from getting future financial aid from institutions and it hurts your credit rating," said Timothy Opgenorth, UIC financial aid director.

Instead, advisors say communicate with your lender. You may be able to negotiate a better payment plan. If you have federal student loans, bankruptcy is not an option. But you can request a deferment or forebearance where your payments are temporarily postponed. And federal loans can also offer an income-based repayment option where your monthly payment is based on your income.

"I knew the debt burden that was coming at me was pretty much like lying on the tracks and watching a train coming at me," said David Kessler.

With $150,000 in student loans, Kessler, a psychology therapist, chose income-based repayment. He says it reduced his monthly payment by more than half. The downside is he'll be paying longer.

"If I'm currently making the payments I make now, we're looking at 52 years," said Kessler.

Hopefully he won't take out a loan to pay for the party.

There is a relatively new program that allows for forgiveness of some federal student loans, if you work for 10 years in a public service job like the government or a non-profit organization.

Income-based repayment:

Postponing student loan repayment:

Stafford loan repayment options:

Salliemae deferment options:

Institute for College Access & Success / The Project On Student Debt

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