Student Debt leaves recent graduates reeling

By Alexa Epitropoulos |

Lexy Evans












For Alexandra Evans graduating from Flagler College meant celebrating with friends and family and reflecting on the past four years — it also meant dealing with $39,000 in student loans.

She had graduated with honors and planned on taking a year off before pursuing her Master’s in Fine Arts. Equipped with a good GPA and glowing letters of recommendation, Evans felt fully prepared to walk into adult life and eventually academia. But there was still a price to pay.

For Evans, taking out loans was a matter of necessity. The debt that has accumulated, however, seems like a punishment.

“I kind of feel penalized for getting a degree,” Evans said. “I had to pay so much money to get this on my own. It just doesn’t feel right.”

Evans, who doesn’t qualify for adequate financial aid and can’t pay for all expenses out of pocket, falls into the margins when it comes to paying tuition. She was left, like many other students, to take out loans to meet the expenses of tuition, living expenses and otherwise.

“I just wish they wouldn’t make it so difficult for someone who is poor. My mom and I ate off food stamps during middle school. I was on free and reduced lunch in high school. In high school, I would eat breakfast, skip lunch and dinner—we might eat, we might not,” Evans said. “It was what it was, but I didn’t like that it put a limit on me when I went to school and I had to take out all these loans.”

Although Evans owes more than the typical student does upon completing undergraduate work, her situation is not unusual. The cost of a college education is steadily increasing, while available financial aid is shrinking.

Unemployment in Youth

High school graduates aged 20-24 face 18 percent unemployment, while post-grads face six percent. Source: U.S. Department of Labor

Complicating matters, a Bachelor’s Degree is something difficult to do without. It’s viewed as the gateway to employment and is still crucial to gaining and maintaining steady employment. Those aged 20 to 24 that complete high school face 18 percent of unemployment, while college graduates in the same age group face six percent.

Attaining even this basic step means getting into debt for most students. Students who graduate in 2013 owe $26,000 on average in student loans, according to a recent Fidelity survey.

At Flagler College the percentage of students who take out loans is lower than the national average of 65.5 percent—but not by much. According to Chris Haffner, the Director of Financial Aid, 60 percent of Flagler students take out loans at some point in their college career. Students generally leave Flagler with $17,000 in student loan debt.

“When students start getting the repayment notices, it comes as a shock to them,” Haffner said. “Students who are responsible and money conscious usually are able to watch these things, but it’s important that all students understand their rights and responsibilities.”

Student debt goes beyond government-issued loans—private loans and credit card debt are adding a new dimension to an ever-growing problem.

“Students get into trouble when they max out credit cards and they get involved in a car loan. They’re managing to cover those things, but have put off thinking about student loans until after they graduate,” Haffner said. “Suddenly there’s this new debt on top of the old debt.”

The options for students to avoid debt, at Flagler and elsewhere, are limited. Pell Grants and access grants are available, but usually are determined on the basis of financial need. Scholarships, meanwhile, can be difficult to find and apply for.

Flaws in the System

Source: U.S. Department of Education

The average loan amount for first-time undergraduate students at four-year private institutions is $7,529. Source: U.S. Department of Education

In Evans’ case, financial aid was the problem. During her senior year of high school, Evans’ mother suffered a major pay cut. At the time, Evans had already filed her FAFSA and did not qualify for enough financial aid to get through school. Instead, Evans was left to pay for her freshman year of school out of pocket, with some help from her mother and a part-time job.

By the time Evans reached her sophomore year, it was necessary to take out loans. Because of her relatively low financial aid, it added up quickly.

“I knew what I was getting into, but, at the same time, I didn’t,” Evans said. “I didn’t understand that it would be so hard.”

She reached the cap for federal loans during her last semester at Flagler. Students are allowed to borrow up to $39,000 from the government, but Evans had already borrowed $38,600, meaning that she had $400 left that she could borrow from the government.

In the past few weeks, Evans has had to confront her loans head-on. Choosing a repayment plan, however, has been far from easy. Making payments was difficult for Evans, who earns a little over minimum wage.

“I was freaking out because they wanted me to pay $500 a month. There was no way I could pay that on top of my rent,” Evans said. “It was adding up too fast.”

Finding Solutions Abroad

Some of Holter's students

Some of Holter’s students in South Korea.   Source: Lindsay Holter

In an economy that’s still recovering, debt is a reality for most students starting out. Although graduates are given a six month grace period after graduation, securing a job or a way of making payments over a long period of time can prove difficult, if not impossible.

Lindsay Holter, who graduated in December 2012, can attest to this.

Holter is currently living and working in South Korea at a private language school, teaching elementary school, middle school and high school students English.

It wasn’t a part of the plan when Holter graduated. When she finished school, she decided against going to graduate school and sent out over 106 job applications in her native Ohio. She was unable to find any secretarial or office work and was, instead, left living at home, working up to 90 hours a week at two jobs to pay towards the accumulated $24,000 in student loan debt.

“I was ready to do something career-related and get paid more than minimum wage,” Holter explained.

That was when she looked into going abroad, specifically to South Korea. Although Holter’s parents were hesitant about her decision at first, they realized she couldn’t go on like she was. Holter was exhausted and fed up with her financial situation.

Now, Holter is paid $2,000 a month. Because she is able to live in housing provided by the school, she is only responsible for paying utilities and incidentals. She is able to use most to pay off outstanding debt.

Even though she has been able to work payments out for the better, it is something that haunts Holter, who is in the midst of deciding whether she wants to return to the U.S. or continue teaching abroad.

“In our country we put so much emphasis on education and it’s unattainable,” Holter said.

It’s not just her own experiences that Holter considers. She thinks about her friend that was forced to leave Flagler because she could no longer afford it and the fact that the school couldn’t help her. She thinks about the children she spends her days teaching who have aspirations of coming to the U.S. It’s difficult to know what to say to them when she has seen the often harsh reality of paying for an education.

“I’ve become so passionate about this because the kids I teach want to go to school,” Holter said. “They want to go to school in America.”

Most of all, Holter thinks of the other students like her who are naïve when they accept their diploma.

“I thought when I graduated that I had done well,” Holter said. “The moral of the story is there’s so many people who were just like me.”

Unsteady Ground

Evans was able to defer payments for a year and will use that time to save up money and apply for MFA programs and, hopefully, assistantships or fellowships. Once she enters graduate graduate school, loan payments will be deferred again.

It’s a relief for now, but her debt is still accumulating interest and Evans knows it will cause anxiety down the road.

After a brief time at 3.4 percent, interest rates for student loans have reverted as of 2012 to 6.8 percent. More and more students are facing delinquent status on loans or, worse yet, defaulting and failing to pay back loans at all.

“You can get into a lot of trouble. They’ll start garnishing your wages, they’ll start calling and harassing your work. They start getting really aggressive,” said Evans. “It’s not something to play around with.”

Evans recalls a conversation she had with her mother after she graduated and began to go through repayment plans. Her mother asked her if it was worth it. It was something she had to think about.

“There was a time I would have said no,” Evans said. “There was a time I would have said I should have gone to a state school.”

Ultimately, however, Evans feels that going to college shaped her life goals. She stills feels that going to Flagler was the best decision, but looking towards the future is daunting.

“It’s scary. It’s one of those moments where I know I have an extension. It’s like having a paper and having a week extension,” Evans said. “It’s still a colossal paper and it still weighs this much on my grade, on my life. It’s there and it’s very real.”

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