Student loans - a life sentence
Forget about getting married and buying a home. This generation is thinking about next month's payment.
By Christian Zappone, staff writer

NEW YORK ( - Mayrose Wegmann, 25, should have been starting on her dream career as a political consultant by now. And saving toward her first home.

Instead, Wegmann, who graduated with a degree in political science and journalism from the University of Iowa in 2004 and moved to Washington, D.C., is working at a non-profit because it pays significantly more than entry-level politics work. And she won't even consider buying a home for several more years.

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Growth in student debt: 59%
  • $9,798: Average debt of public school grads in 1990. 46.2% of grads had loans.
  • $15,622: Average debt in 2004. Roughly 67% of grads had loans.

In fact, she won't consider much except how to meet the $300 a month she owes on her $34,000 student loan balance.

"The school debt makes you decide [about your career] based on the money factor. Not based on what you want to do," said Wegmann.

The Class of 2006, set to graduate this month, will soon be in the same boat.

Approximately two-thirds of all students use loans to pay for their higher education, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research using data from the College Board. The average debt for students graduating in 2003-2004, the latest data available, was $15,622 for public schools and $22,581 for private many students rack up even more on their credit cards.

As recently as 1990, only 46.2 percent of students at public schools took out loans, averaging just $9,798 in 2004 dollars. Private school debt in 1990 averaged just $15,054.

Call it a reverse dowry: college debt diverts careers and delays or impedes graduates' plans to get married, buy a home or even to start a family. The effects can last years.

A 22-year old student graduating this year who consolidates their $40,000 loan at 6.125 percent will need to pay $243 a month...until they're 52. By that time, they will have paid $47,494 in interest alone.

A reverse dowry

"My student loan debt is my biggest source of stress in my life at the moment," said Steve Desroches, a 2002 graduate from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. "I live paycheck to paycheck."

The degree left Desroches, who works for a newspaper on Cape Cod, $50,000 in debt with no savings. He's unable to buy a needed car or to even think about entering Massachusetts's "out of control" real estate market.

The repayments were so financially restrictive he briefly considered declaring bankruptcy, until he learned it wouldn't affect his student loans because they're federally guaranteed.

"My feelings about my degree now? My graduate education was invaluable [to my career], but it wasn't worth $50,000, or more accurately, it isn't worth the debt. My options are definitely limited."

Christine Moellenberndt of Sacramento, California has given up on the idea of owning a home, at least anytime in the next 10-15 years. She graduated last June from the University of California, Santa Cruz with a degree in anthropology, and moved back in with her mother when she realized not doing so would mean living paycheck to paycheck with no chance of paying down her debts.

"That $675 I could be spending in rent could also be a good chunk of a credit card payment, or a huge payment for my student loans. I see that as a bit of a better investment than living on my own and struggling paycheck to paycheck."

Moellenberndt says at least half her monthly income working at a state regulatory agency goes to pay off her $18k in federal student loans. And although the debt is daunting, her plans to become a community college professor call for an advanced degree...hiking her debt in the future.

A growing issue for the economy and society

The cumulative effect of such student debt on graduates is unclear, although few would argue that its impact will be positive for the graduates, the economy or society.

"We've never done this to a generation of young people before," said Dr. Heather Boushey, Senior Economist at the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research. "We've never put a generation in their 20s in debt they can't get out of before they started their work life."

"The normal approach in any healthy society is to help young married couples get started in life through marital gifts, dowries, and the like," Allan Carlson of the socially-conservative Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society said.

"We now burden many young adults with student debt, sometimes massive in nature; the price being paid includes marriages delayed or foregone and fewer children. This is foolish public policy."


Are you lending a financial hand to your aging parents? If you are willing to talk to MONEY Magazine about your experiences, please e-mail:

Cap, check. Gown, check. Job, no prob. Top of page

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