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I Owe U

Mounting college costs push more students into debt

By Leilani Clark

Three years ago, I decided to attend graduate school with little forethought and lots of hope. The tuition for the private college where I enrolled was steep, but I brushed off the debt, figuring I would cross the repayment bridge when I got to it. I jokingly told people that I might be paying off my education until I was 60, but even as the words came out of my mouth, they didn't seem real.

After graduation, I took a good hard look at my student-loan balance. It broke $50,000. I flashed back on book-making classes, glorified summer camp arts and crafts lessons to the tune of hundreds of dollars a unit. Doh! And now, the truth lay before me, thousands upon thousands of dollars owed in my name to the federal government—or was it my lender or some private bank? I'm still not sure. I had reached that repayment bridge, and all I wanted to do was turn back and start all over again. I soon found out that I wasn't alone.

"Student-loan debt is just as bad as any other debt. Unfortunately, in my generation it has delayed decisions whether or not to start a family, buy a house, things like that," says April Norhanian, author of College Is for Suckers, on the phone from Atlanta, Ga. Although Norhanian has a masters degree, her exposure to the marketing machine while working as a college admissions officer led to her belief that getting into debt for college is a bad decision.

"It's marketing hype. They use fear. Colleges say if you don't have a $70,000 education, you'll be flipping burgers for life," Norhanian continues. "When I worked at an art school, I saw people spending several thousands of dollars thinking they are going to be game designers, and they're still working at the local coffee shop, paying off those loans."

According to U.S. Department of Education statistics, few students can afford to pay for college without some form of education financing. Loan options range from government-regulated Stafford and Perkins loans (which tend to have lower interest rates), parent loans and private student loans. In the 2007–'08 school year, 86.3 percent of undergraduates borrowed to pay for their education, and the average cumulative debt was $24,651. Post-grad and professional students borrow even more, with cumulative debt for a graduate degree typically ranging from $30,000 to $120,000.

So what happens when all of these students, degrees stashed into sweaty palms, go out into the real world to search for a job and cannot find something that will allow them to pay off that debt in a timely manner? Forget about applying for bankruptcy. As a result of the 1998 Higher Education Act, student loans, even those not guaranteed by the federal government, are nondischargeable in bankruptcy. Unlike credit card and housing debt, student loans can follow borrowers to the grave. Since interest continues to accrue, even when loans are in forbearance, those in debt can end up owing double and even triple their original loan amounts. Loan companies like Sallie Mae have the power to garnish wages, tax returns, Social Security and disability income to get their payback.

"Where someone with a bad mortgage is forced into bankruptcy and left with nothing, a distressed student borrower is forced into a predatory, government-sanctioned trap where the only way out is to pay triple, quadruple or often far more than the original debt," says Alan Collinge responding to questions via email. The author of The Student Loan Scam: The Most Oppressive Debt in U.S. History—and How We Can Fight Back, Collinge founded in 2005 with the purpose of restoring standard consumer protection to student loans.

"Student loans barely existed 30 years ago. Today, we owe $700 billion as a nation, one in three borrowers are being put in default, and decent citizens are being forced off the grid, out of the country and worse by the very system they were compelled to embrace from a young age," Collinge argues. In his book, he advocates the formation of a grassroots movement that would pressure Congress into creating increased protections for borrowers. Collinge may see his goals realized sooner than later. Last month, President Obama introduced a plan that would end the role of private banks in the federal education lending systems, and while the legislation has not yet been passed, its approval would prevent certain parties from making a profit off college dreams.

Jesse Jackson and Suze Orman are two influential Americans who have recently spoken out about the impending student-loan crisis, but the key to averting personal student-loan disaster begins with looking at options as they stand right now. Too many people jump into the debt morass without first doing their research.

Since the first two years of college tend to cover the core classes, students can attend community college to get those basics before transferring to more expensive universities. While this may not carry the prestige of attending a fancy school right off the bat, the money savings will be worth the trade-off in the end. State schools rather than private universities are another option, since realistically the strength of a particular program is more important than the name of the school on the degree.

Consider the source of the loan before signing the papers. The Student Loan Borrower Assistance project encourages students to exhaust their federal student grant and loan options before turning to private loans. Nongovernment loans tend to lack the more affordable, fixed rates and flexible repayment options provided by Stafford, Perkins and PLUS loans. Interest rates for private loans have risen as high as 28 percent in at least one publicly documented case.

Students can also try to live frugally. Despite an afternoon at my undergraduate university watching a video that warned of spending loan money on cruises in the Bahamas, I treated my refund checks as petty cash. I bought records and clothing without thinking of the money as something I would have to pay back later. Borrowers must be informed beforehand just how much interest will be tacked on to that already hefty loan balance.

April Norhanian argues that college may not necessarily be the best route for everyone, even though many parents and young adults believe that it is the only way to bridge the gap between living at home and adulthood. She encourages people to travel, work and really think about what they want to do with their lives before deciding on college.

"Don't go into debt and try to do it on your own just because it's the thing to do. Research what you want to do. So many people are just kind of herded into college," says Norhanian. "You can get that experience so many other ways. Travel. Take two years off. Do an au pair program. Figure out what you don't like. There is nothing wrong with not knowing what you want to do, but people rush into it without really thinking about it."

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