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Debt 101: a main course for many college grads

Published Oct. 6, 2005

Hillary Wicai has her dream job as a television reporter, but she can't afford the clothes that make her look professional on the air.

She's trying to pay off "an enormous debt, probably $20,000 or $21,000" for the year at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism that helped her land the job. And that's on a novice newsperson's salary of $16,000 a year.

"All my clothes are gifts," says Wicai, who works for WLFI in West Lafayette, Ind. "Every single thing I have for work was given to me. My mother, my grandmother _ they shop for me for bargains."

Millions of today's students must smirk when, studying Shakespeare, they come across Polonius' advice to his son Laertes,"Neither a borrower nor a lender be."

If they weren't borrowers, they wouldn't in college be.

And after they get out, their debt can influence the course of their lives. A study finds that many graduates in debt postpone marriage, delay having a family, hold down two jobs, even put off medical care.

Much attention has been paid to college borrowers who default but relatively little to the impact of indebtedness on the 12.5-million who ploddingly, month after month, pay off their loans.

Collectively they owe $41.9-billion. Many are still in hock 10 years after graduation.

No time for these young people to backpack across Europe; no year off to "find themselves" _ they've got debts to pay.

"There are students who would like to take a couple of years of their life and go to work in the non-profit sector and return something to their country before they mush on with their careers," said Victor Lindquist, Northwestern's placement director.

"But they feel they are unable to do that and still meet their financial obligations. The clock begins ticking once you graduate."

For a variety of reasons _ college tuitions have soared, more people of all incomes are enrolling and there are more loan programs available _ more students are leaving school in debt.

In many schools, 70 percent of the student body must borrow. One survey said that the average undergraduate borrower carried away a $7,900 debt. Those who also borrowed for an advanced degree owed $31,000.

And the burden is compounded when one student debtor marries another.

"When I was in school in the 1950s, I had three jobs and worked summers," recalled Lindquist. "If you hustled you could make your way through."

Joanne Peevey, director of career and counseling services at the University of Houston at Clear Lake, said some graduates with loans leap at the first job offer that comes along "rather than taking the time to find the job that fits their skills and interest. So they pay a price."

Debt, of course, isn't a burden for every borrower. Jerry Heet, a Northwestern computer engineering graduate with AT&T Bell Laboratories in Naperville, Ill., the first member of his family to go to college, finds his loans an inconvenience, but not much more.

He pays back $110.59 a month; he knows the figure by heart. He said he had to postpone buying a new stereo system and drove his 1981 Nissan 220SX "basically into the ground."

"But looking at what it gave me _ a great education _ I would recommend borrowing rather than going to a lesser school," Heet said.

Newscaster Wicai agreed.

"Could I have gotten this job without that degree?" she asked. "Yes. But would I have been as prepared? No. I wanted to be the best entry-level reporter I could be, so I could feel confident in my abilities.

"My lifestyle is dictated by two things _ my loan and my lack of income," she said. "I could have had these loans and been a stockbroker and been okay. But the combination means I have no social life."

To measure the after-college impact of college debt, educational researchers Joseph Boyd and Carol Wennerdahl questioned 551 recent college graduates who had borrowed.

Four in 10 said they found their payments easily handled. But for one in four, the debt affected decisions on when or if to marry; more than a third who did marry said it influenced decisions about starting a family.

Four in 10 work at two jobs or more because of their debts. More than a quarter said their loans caused them to live with family or relatives, and 35 percent said they postponed needed health care because of their debt.

Significantly, about 13 percent said their loans forced them to drop out of college _ leaving them perhaps worse off than if they had never gone.

"The amount of earning power you have with just some college is not much more than with a high school diploma," said Ted Marchese, vice president of the American Association for Higher Education. "So these kids are in a bind; $6 an hour doesn't go far when you have a $110 monthly debt."

Samuel Hall, director of career services at Howard University in Washington, D.C., said he has seen students "struggle through one, two, three semesters, just worn down" by mounting debts. "I have a feeling we push out a lot of kids. The financial burden is just too great."

As a step toward relieving these problems, Congress reformed federal student loan programs last year.

Still, some educators think more could be done to relieve young people of starting careers mired in debt.

Northwestern's Kellogg Graduate School of Management is setting up a loan-forgiveness program for students who take low-paying jobs for nonprofit outfits or in government or teaching and Stanford University is studying compressing undergraduate work into three years to reduce the overall cost.