Economics 101: Is the Heavy Burden of Student Debt Worth It? 

Student loans saddle graduates with debt deep into their working lives

"We've looked at prior generations like our parents. They were able to come out of college, pay off their loans and be able to do things like buy a house, buy two cars, take family vacations, save for retirement. That doesn't seem possible for us," said Boise resident Sunrise Ayers, 31.

Ayers' dour outlook on the future comes from her student debt, which she accrued over four years at College of Idaho (class of 2003) and three years at the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis and Clark College.

At $89,000, it's a personal debt load she fears may take her the rest of her working life to pay, despite earning $38,500 a year as a lawyer with Idaho Legal Aid Services Inc.--a non-profit legal and education center--where she has worked for more than five years.

Guidance counselors and admissions representatives have told a generation of high school graduates that student loans are "good debt," affording them the education they need to compete in the workplace and credit scores that will later help them finance cars and homes.

For some, the formula has worked. For others, student debt is no longer a gateway to the American dream but a wall that denies them entry and raises questions about personal and collective financial responsibility.

Approximately 60 million Americans hold some amount of student debt. In Idaho, graduates are learning first-hand that going to college may come at the expense of other life goals.

Paying for education has become central to Ayers' family budget. Her husband owes $47,000 after earning a bachelor's degree in engineering from Boise State, and she co-signed a $10,000 loan for her brother to attend Apollo College. The grand total is somewhere just south of $150,000.

Debt has had a marked affect on Ayers' lifestyle and goals for the future.

"We still have all the furniture I bought when I was in college. We get our kids' clothes at secondhand stores. We live like college kids even though we both have jobs," Ayers said.

Undertaking her debt load was a Faustian pact that gave Ayers the tools to succeed but took from her the freedom to enjoy success. It's a bargain she said she made almost without thought, feeling bolstered in her resolve by the impression that college was a prerequisite for a fulfilling career and her lifestyle expectations.

"Back when I graduated, I had almost a 4.0 [grade point average]. It was assumed I would go to college, and the advice I got from every direction was to get a loan. It was 'good' debt. I just took out loans without a second thought to it," she said.

She'll be eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program in 2018, which means that the balance of her remaining federal student loans will be forgiven after 10 years of working for a public service institution. Ayers is afraid, however, that Congress will defund the program, leaving her with tens of thousands of dollars of debt that would otherwise be disposable income.

Ayers' story isn't uncommon. More students are paying more for college and university educations than ever before: Between 1999 and 2009, college and university enrollment rose 38 percent, while in the last 30 years, the cost of education has risen 400 percent. But the student loan problem----the lovechild of the ballooning cost and demand of education----didn't make its debut in the public consciousness until total student debt in the United States topped credit card debt in 2010. This year, it topped $1 trillion.

For years, high school career counselors told graduating high school seniors like Ayers that education debt is good debt.

One counselor, Capital High School's Robbie Cupps, said that widespread chatter about the rising cost of education and the perils of student debt have begun to change the dialogue between students, their parents and career counselors.

"I believe there's enough talk out there that kids are hearing it and wondering," Cupps said.

Cupps may be a counselor, but she sees herself as an educator, informing students'--and their parents--higher education choices as early as possible.

"That whole conversation needs to be taking place sooner than senior year," she said.

Parents are taking a greater part in that conversation than ever. Cupps regularly fields phone calls and visits from parents concerned about how they'll pay for their graduating senior's college education. Many have a limited understanding about what acceptance into a college or university entails.

Almost always, financial aid packages contain student and PLUS loans--loans taken out by parents--that can take families by surprise, she said.

"Parents really need to become savvy about what's included in a financial aid package," Cupps said.

She recommends that parents talk to their children about their families' financial situation, what the future plans are and how they want to achieve their goals.

In some cases, a student's school of choice may be taken off the table.

"Parents aren't going to be able to send their kids to the schools their kids want to go to," she said. "Parents really have to sit down with their seniors and really discuss their budget and discuss how much it's going to be for them to send their child to this particular school."

Over the years, the tools at Cupps' disposal to educate students and their parents about the cost of college have become more sophisticated. Many colleges now offer tuition calculators that estimate the cost of attendance based on a variety of factors, from grade point averages to parents' annual incomes.

These e-tools, designed to lend the financial-aid process greater transparency, can still be deceiving. The amount of information potential applicants feed into the estimators varies from college to college, and frequently doesn't account for the rising cost of tuition and fees, which can be as high as 10 percent yearly. Cupps also pointed out that guessing at the cost of an education isn't the same as an offer of financial aid.

"It's not an in-stone thing. It's just an estimator," she said.

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