How Has Student Loan Debt Shaped Your Life?

Guests

Claudio Sanchez, education correspondent, NPR

Total student loan debt in the U.S. will cross the 1 trillion dollar threshold in 2011, an amount that surpasses the nation's combined credit card debt. It affects how many students and graduates decide whether and where to go to school, what job to take, where to live and how to pay their bills.

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. The total owed on student loans is expected to cross the $1 trillion mark by the end of this year. That's a number that's doubled in the past five years. And to give you some perspective, Americans now owe more on student loans than we do on our credit cards.

Debt now drives more and more decisions: which school to attend, maybe community college instead; and some can no longer justify a passion for anthropology or English literature when some other degree might pay off more quickly. And costs continue to rise.

What decisions has your student debt forced you to make? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program: the world's seven billionth person, on The Opinion Page this week, and the difficulties of projecting how high world population may get and how fast it may get there. But first student loans, and NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez joins us here in Studio 3A. And Claudio, nice to have you back with us.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Good to be here.

CONAN: A trillion dollars, how did we get here?

SANCHEZ: First I should say that, you know, the Federal Reserve has disputed this number, and they point to the fact that the reason that the credit card rate is down, or the debt is down, is because people have literally torn up their credit cards. They can't afford to pay for them anymore. And you also have the fact that, you know, that the reason the debt for student loans are up is because college enrollment has skyrocketed.

CONAN: And continues to skyrocket, even though people know they're going to end up with college loans to pay.

SANCHEZ: Exactly. Now here's a figure, though, that is interesting. About 82 percent of the outstanding student lent today, as we speak, accrued over the last 10 years. From 1999 to 2011, student loans have grown 511 percent. That's amazing.

CONAN: We've already - the lines are flooded. We've gotten tons of emails already, this from Pamela in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho. It's a little long, but: How hasn't student loan debt affected my life, she wrote. It dictated what school I could attend as an undergraduate. It was the primary reason I did not go to veterinary school.

In graduate school, I worked as a teaching assistant and had a part-time job, affecting my ability to finish. I got a job I could not afford to keep. So it has influenced my job decisions. I have no children, as I wasn't going to start a family until I could pay off my loan debt, and now it's too late. I have moved 2,500 miles from my family for better job options and lower costs of living.

Now I'm in a Ph.D. program and have no expectations of ever getting out of this hole. We paid off my husband's, but mine grows each year beyond what I can pay back on the typical salary in the field of wildlife biology. Students get less now for what they're being charged. It skyrockets either in tuition or hidden fees like lab fees, and university budgets get cut and cut. If you look, the only increase in spending has been in university administration costs.

SANCHEZ: And every time we've covered this issue, Neal, we hear from people who actually have little empathy for students who pick history or English as a degree.

CONAN: Or wildlife biology.

SANCHEZ: Exactly, so, you know, there's a kind of a let's blame the victim here, in effect. But it's unreasonable to expect that - you know, if you have a passion, if you follow passion and want to pursue that in higher education, it's - it used to unreasonable to ask people to give up on that in order to, you know, be more pragmatic, get into the sciences or technology.

CONAN: Get an engineering degree, yeah.

SANCHEZ: Exactly. And now there's, again, little tolerance for people who pick careers that some people say isn't going to help you pay back those loans.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. Jennifer's(ph) calling from Oakland.

JENNIFER: Hi, I'll be 42 in December, and I finished my master's degree at Tulane, where I actually had a tuition waiver and a student assistantship in 1995. And I've got double undergraduate degree, bachelors in Spanish and sociology. My master's is Latin American studies.

But I ended up taking out a lot of student loans just to cover basic living expenses, even though I had an assistantship, and I worked part-time. So I worked 30 hours a week. And I worked more than that during my undergraduate, but during graduate school, it was harder because there was a lot more work.

And I had the idea that I was going to go get a Ph.D. and become a professor, and I didn't get accepted into any of the programs I applied to, even at one school, which a professor who was a volunteer reader on my master's thesis had written me a glowing recommendation, didn't even get accepted there.

So I went into tech, and I've been doing project management, which is basically babysitting, and I can't do anything in my field. You know, people look at my resume, and they think oh, that's great, you've got a master's degree, and you speak Spanish and French and Italian. And I've been teaching myself Arabic. But I've never been able to use any of those languages in any of my jobs because I can't afford to take a job that does - you know, where I can do things that I enjoy.

I've still got $23,000 in debt, and I had over $60,000 when I finished.

CONAN: And have you projected what year you may get out from underneath?

JENNIFER: You know, right now, I'm only working part-time because the economy is so bad in our area that, you know, all the employers are switching to - even though we're at an at-will hiring state in California, they're all switching to contract. They don't want to commit to employees. So all I can get are contract jobs.

And my last full-time contract ended two years ago, and I've been on a part-time contract since December 2009, which has its ups and downs. I'm telecommuting, you know, the whole term of the contract. And I've taken on some other part-time work there.

CONAN: So in other words, it's stretching out forever at this point.

JENNIFER: (Unintelligible) pay off just to - you know, and to cover rent and other expenses.

CONAN: Jennifer, good luck.

JENNIFER: Yeah, thanks.

CONAN: And those are the kinds of decisions everybody who graduates with a big student loan debt is forced to - and we kept being told at the beginning of this recession that, all right, one of the best things to do is go back to school, get another degree. That'll help you when you get out. By that time, the economy will have picked up, and you'll benefit from having that other degree.

SANCHEZ: Certainly up until this recession that was the case. That was the trend, you know, you go back to school, If nothing else to improve your employment chances. But in this recession, something has gone terribly wrong.

I should say that, you know, if people ask when and how did this begin, you could point easily to the fact that state funding for higher education, public higher education, has dropped 24 percent. With less state aid, colleges have had to rely more on students and families to pay a bigger share of their education. College tuition, meanwhile, and fees have been climbing faster than inflation, faster than wages and family income.

The average tuition right now, Neal, is really high compared to what it was only a few years ago. Just this fall, tuition and fees, on average, went up $631, an eight percent increase over last year.

CONAN: For public schools, yeah.

SANCHEZ: For public schools. You know, a full-time student these days is having to pay close to $8,000 a year even if they're in-state, $16,000 a year if you are - if you include room and board. These are the kinds of costs that, again, are pushing families to have to borrow more and more and more and at the worst possible moment.

CONAN: Here's a - well, except for interest rates aren't so bad. But Heidi(ph) in Bozeman, Montana, emailed: What's the point of going to school and spending thousands of dollars if there's no job waiting upon graduation to help pay the student pay off the debt? Both I and my friends all graduated with between $20,000 and $40,000 in debt, and we all work at a corporate restaurant - so much for the American dream.

Before we get to more calls and emails, Claudio, last week President Obama said he was terribly aware of this awful situation that so many people face and with an executive order said he was going to make it easier for some people to repay their student loans.

SANCHEZ: Right, he calls it a pay-as-you-earn plan, which is actually something that the president passed through Congress in 2009. So it's relatively new. It's just been repackaged. And he's made it, I guess, more available beginning in 2012.

It's not considered what many people would consider transformative. This is not an enormously important or watershed moment in the funding of higher education or loans. Its most current version essentially says the following: If you have a government-backed loan, it will be backed - or capped at - or debt, I should say, it would be capped at 10 percent in terms of your monthly payments.

The White House estimates that 1.6 million students would be eligible to seek their - to lower their monthly payments, which could go down by hundreds of dollars, depending on how much you owe. And if in 20 years down the road you still haven't paid off all the debt, the federal government will forgive the balance.

On the face of it, this all sounds very good. This could bring at least some relief to some people. But first, people should know that any borrower who graduated in 2011 or earlier will not be eligible. It's strictly for those in college now or in the future. Also, if you have defaulted on a government-subsidized loan, you're not eligible. Private loans, not subsidized by the government, are not covered by this plan.

So it has a limited impact. And the people who have done a little bit of the math here have suggested that even with that 10 percent cap on discretionary income, you know, people are likely to save maybe anywhere from $30 to $50 per month. Now that may be a lot for some folks, but it is not a lot of money when you consider how much money some of these students owe.

CONAN: So it's also important to remember, of course, you can't declare bankruptcy on student loans.

SANCHEZ: That's right. The government will come after you. I mean, you just can't have that loan just absolutely forgiven or erased.

CONAN: To be fair to the president, is this the extent that he could change things in students' favor without going back to Congress, which is not a really productive place to go at the moment?

SANCHEZ: Sure, he's used this politically to say that do-nothing Congress, you know, has forced me to do this. But everybody agrees that unless Congress acts and takes up this issue in a bipartisan way, with the president, the whole pricing structure of higher education, as well as the long-term fixes that are needed to bring these loans and at least the debt down, the default rates down and so forth, which is creeping up, you're really not going to see much movement.

CONAN: Here's - we'll go through some emails. They are flooding in, a tweet from Cataclysmic: My college debt is stifling. I'm afraid to switch jobs and have kids for fear that I will never get out of it after a setback. This from Chris(ph) in Minneapolis: I'm a lawyer who has over $100,000 in student loans. I have no quibble paying back the principle, which I borrowed.

I have a serious problem, however, with the terms, almost eight percent. I cannot refinance. I don't qualify for hardship payments and can only pay them off or die, at which point they disappear. Is this the American dream? Those interest payments, 8 percent, interest rates are now - you can get a mortgage for under four.

SANCHEZ: That's right, and if you have a private loan, if you borrowed from a bank or a private lender, those rates can be even higher. And again, you know, because this - the president's plan doesn't cover private loans, which have increasingly become a bigger share of what families have to borrow, then, I mean, people are still going to be in a bind a year or two years, three years down the road.

CONAN: We're talking with Claudio Sanchez, NPR education correspondent. More in a moment about the costs of college education and what decisions college student loan debts are making people make. Call us with your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Two-thirds of college students now graduate with thousands of dollars in loan debt. The average amount: $24,000. Recent graduates already face a tough job market, of course, and this high level of debt can affect any number of decisions, about schools and about careers and about life.

What decisions has your student debt forced you to make? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Our guest is NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez. And let's go next to Eros(ph), Eros with us from Tucson.

EROS: Yeah, I have about $70,000 in student debt. I went and got an undergraduate degree in psychology, and then I went to grad school for a year in the same subject, decided I didn't want to do it and then dropped out of school, and the economy turned bad.

And I spent about three years trying to find a decent-paying job, going through my deferments for my loans, and couldn't find one. And now I decided just to go back to school - I'm a film major - in order to not have to repay those loans because I really don't have the money for it. But in essence, I'm borrowing more money. And I'm getting myself deeper in debt. So I feel really stuck in the system and the way the economy is right now.

CONAN: So as long as you are a student, you're not required to pay back the loans. But of course, you're borrowing more money to continue to be a student.

EROS: Yes.

CONAN: I think - have you read "Catch-22"?

EROS: Yeah, I feel like I'm the U.S. government.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Thanks very much, Eros. And that is, I guess, a way out. But boy, you know, maybe the film business will explode.

SANCHEZ: And I mean, I have heard so many stories like this one. You know, the one - not that this is less of a, I guess, sad story that we just heard, but when you consider that a lot of medical students who, you know, accrue debts of upwards of half-a-million dollars sometimes after they got done, what it's really doing in some areas is forcing people to go into the fields or the specialties that are least needed.

I mean, when you look at some doctors or at least some people who said they wanted to be family practitioners, that they wanted to go to rural communities so that they could - you know, maybe the only doctor in the area, these are folks who are now having to make that tough, tough decision to say, well, look, I mean, I'm not going to get nearly as much as if I go into some other more lucrative area.

CONAN: Plastic surgery.

SANCHEZ: Plastic surgery. And that is, I think, depleting both the nation as well as these individuals. And, you know, we're hearing more and more about that.

CONAN: Here's an email from Betsy(ph) in Madison: So why are schools still accepting and turning out graduate students in the humanities? Seems like there are not enough jobs today, and still schools persist with the degrees. As an aside, my brother is a 50-something unemployed Ph.D. humanities graduate with lots of debt and very few possibilities for employment. He's been unemployed for three years.

SANCHEZ: And, you know, it's interesting that in stories that we've done, as you may recall, the Occupy Wall Street movement, you know, raised this precise issue of, you know, forgiving student debt and at least trying to compel the government to do more for some of these students who cannot find jobs.

The bottom line is that a lot of people are having to just rethink what decisions they make. And, you know, for people with a humanities degree or a Ph.D. in that area, sure there's always teaching, but if you're not - you know, if you don't want to do that, then what are the options, really? And I think that that's why people are being a little bit more reflective about the specialties or the fields that they choose.

CONAN: Let's go next to Kate(ph), and Kate is in Mishawka, Indiana, excuse me.

KATE: Hi, guys. I just wanted to comment. I actually took 10 years to get my degree because I could not decide on a major but took a community college route for eight years and paid payments on it, cash every semester before I could schedule classes again. I guess I'm just wondering - I mean, and obviously I graduated with my bachelor's degree and could not find an accounting job.

My bachelor's is in accounting, and so I decided to go back, paid cash for my study materials to get my CPA. I guess I'm just wondering why this debt is a surprise to anyone when you have to request this money throughout your entire degree.

CONAN: Congratulations, by the way, Kate.

KATE: Thanks.

CONAN: But Claudio?

SANCHEZ: Well, you know, that's one reason why college - community college enrollment is way, way up. I think people are taking a second look at community colleges or have been forced to. I mean, community college can actually be a great buy.

You don't have to borrow nearly as much. A lot of people just pay out of pocket. On average, if I'm not mistaken, we're talking about $3,000 a year, on average, for a pretty good, reasonable, you know, curriculum, and certainly in fields that are really needed, in technical fields and vocationally or oriented fields, whether it's medical or other fields.

So they're taking up a lot of the slack in the - at this point. The problem with community colleges is that a lot of people drop out of community college. It has a high dropout rate. That may be because it does tend to get a lot of folks who didn't do well in high school. They come in needing a lot of remediation. Kate may or may not be an example of that. But is it a smart move at a time right now when we're seeing these, you know, four-year institutions raise their tuitions? You bet.

Again, we come back to one very fundamental change in higher education, and that is that college, community colleges are being starved by their states, and they're far more reliant on state funding than most institutions in post-secondary education.

CONAN: Kate, does that $3,000 a year sound about right?

KATE: Yeah, and you know what? I'm not going to lie: I wanted to go away to school and party and get that away-from-home experience, but the cost was just too much. I spent the bulk of the money on the last two years of my education, still managed to scrape by and pay that off. But I just can't see spending, you know, upwards of $50,000 on an education.

CONAN: Kate, thanks very much. And good luck in your CPA career.

KATE: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Robert(ph) in Lakewood: Hearing the stories about college loans makes me thankful that I went to college in the late '60s, when tuition cost $125 per quarter. We weren't going to continue to be a global leader if we don't roll back the ever-increasing costs of college. Who can afford it? And that's in Lakewood, Ohio.

And doesn't that get down to the fundamental question, Claudio?

SANCHEZ: That's right, but there's little anybody can do. As long as public institutions for state-land-grant-type big schools rely on state funding, they're going to be stuck. And they have no one else to pass on those costs than to students and families. And I don't see that changing, and I haven't talked to any people who see that changing anytime soon.

In fact, it's the opposite. A lot of - the biggest increases in funding for these institutions has actually come from the federal government, especially if you're a research institution. But, you know, those savings, if they can be called savings, or that money isn't passed on to the student or to the family. I mean, families and students are still having to pay the bulk or at least a larger share of their education.

CONAN: So that's when you see state university systems, for example California, with sharp increases in tuition because there have been sharp cutbacks in their funding from the state.

SANCHEZ: Exactly. On average, statewide, 24-percent cuts.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Rachel(ph), Rachel with us from St. Louis.

RACHEL: Hi, I am actually originally from New York. And I fell to the prey of a for-profit education system because I didn't know any better. I was the first person in my family to go to college. So I did get a graphic design bachelor's degree, but I owe over $100,000 now because I didn't know any better.

There was no process where they updated me and told me how much money I had taken out along the way, and actually the school that I went to now is under a federal lawsuit for fraudulent student loan practices.

CONAN: Oh, is this one of those for-profit universities?

RACHEL: Yeah, I mean, I guess it's - EDMC is the leading, like, group that owns the art institutes. And most of my friends that went there, they didn't even graduate, and they still have all this debt. And I know of - I can't remember the guy's name. I know that he is in Michigan, and he's trying to get something passed to, I guess, he's saying to stimulate the economy they should forgive all these student loans because we're generally creating a working class of well-educated poor people.

And I mean, I only make $35,000 a year, which isn't bad, but I'm never going to be able to pay $100,000. And it's really sad because, I mean, I can pay my bills now, and it feels good to pay my bills, but knowing this will always be there, it, like, makes it seem like it wasn't even worth it to go to school because I didn't even learn anything. I taught myself everything.

And I've heard from, like, people in the art field that are art directors and HR people that whenever they see the art institutes, they don't even look at the portfolio. They just throw the resume away. And essentially, I have $100,000 worthless piece of paper.

CONAN: Claudio?

SANCHEZ: You know, this sounds like what Secretary Duncan has called the bad actors in the for-profit school industry. And, you know, the fact that you owe $100,000, and you still feel like you didn't learn anything, that must say something about that institution.

Now having said that, you know, the president or the Obama administration has said it's enough. We can no longer help subsidize these institutions. For-profit schools right now make up 12 percent of post-secondary enrollment, but they take up 24 percent of federal loans and federal dollars and produce 43 percent of federal loan defaults. Now, that is a lot, and that says, again, something about maybe why this industry has to be regulated more, even though there's an enormous amount of resistance.

The graduation rates for for-profit schools, like the one that Rachel went to, is only a fifth, 22 percent, for first-time, fulltime students in a four-year program. That's compared to 55 percent for most - or typical public institutions. The numbers are just all whacky when it comes to these for-profits. These are schools that rely almost entirely on students getting federal aid or some kind of loan. Ninety-seven percent of students who graduate from these institutions had to borrow money.

Many are low-income students. A fourth of them have to - had to take out more than $40,000, on average. And, again, that's very high compared to public institutions where only 5 percent of students take up - or take as much as $40,000 in loans or more. So the Department of Ed has said we're going to crack down on these so-called bad actors. Now, there's been a lot of political debate over this on Capitol Hill because some folks there, especially Republicans, feel that, you know, this is an industry that is actually taking up the slack and giving students a more practical education. They're putting them in jobs earlier for better wages.

CONAN: And giving opportunities to people who don't have those opportunities are traditional jobs.

SANCHEZ: Exactly, because these are people who often wouldn't have made it, or at least qualified for undergraduate education programs in a state school. But the problem here is that maybe, you know, the numbers speak for themselves that there's something really wrong if you graduate with that much debt and still don't have a job.

CONAN: Here's an email from Richard, in Ann Arbor. I matriculated at the University of Michigan 50 years ago last month. Out of curiosity, a couple of weeks ago, I looked up the current tuition and fees for the same program. The current costs are about 40 times what they were then. And this from Ross in Pittsburgh: Really enjoying the conversation. As a sociology professor with my own student loan debt, I really take issue with the argument that one should get a more practical degree.

College is not vocational tech school. It's supposed to be about creating more informed, critically thinking, creative citizens who are more engaged. These people are generally more employable, but if all we focus on is practical job training, we lose much of the purpose of a college education. I don't want to lose that liberal arts focus.

SANCHEZ: That's a good point. But, again, we're at a time when the economy is dictating so much in the way we think about this. I don't think there's anything wrong with thinking that, you know, a well-rounded education will give you better prospects down the road. But in this economy, people with well-rounded educations aren't doing that well. People with a degree in, you know, in a technical field are, in some cases, more likely to find a job, even if it's not the greatest job, but they're finding something.

CONAN: Claudio Sanchez, NPR education correspondent. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Brad's on the line, calling from Sacramento.

BRAD: Hi. I think that's a - I feel like I'm sort of an authority on student debt in that I'm a physician. And coming from a lower-middle-class upbringing, we never had any - I never had any help from my parents. And so when I finished medical school, I had over $200,000 in loans, which was just overwhelming to me, and really affected what I opted to go into. I felt obligated to go into a specialty and ended up being a surgeon, because I felt like I needed to do something with a larger income to - because of the loan burden. And for many years, it was like a, you know, like a bad dream, like, all my loan debt. But fortunately, over time, I've been able to pay it down.

CONAN: Well, congratulations on paying it down. If you'd your choice about which specialty to go into, what would you have picked?

BRAD: I think that - ultimately, I think I would have ended up in the same field. I just love surgery so much. But often I, you know, my fellow students, a lot of them going to the same school, graduate with the same amount of debt by going into, let's say, primary care or pediatrics, where you start off with a - maybe a salary of $70,000, and you have $200,000 in loans. It's just, you know, it's a much harder lifestyle choice. And so...

SANCHEZ: I'd be curious, Brad. Are you still paying back that money?

BRAD: I am. You know, I've been out in practice for almost six years, and so I - and my training was six years long after medical school. So for six years, I was making, you know, 35, $40,000 as a resident. And so most of my loans just kept on accumulating. And so it ended up being like 240,000. And now, you know, unfortunately, I'm part of the - that 1 percent, the unpopular 1 percent in the country. I make about $250,000 a year. But most of my income, I put towards my loans.

And so, you know, I'm proud to say that now it's about $15,000. And so I guess there's some degree of hope to people out there with large a amount of loans. You know, I think that, although it may affect your career decisions, you know, I'm - I come from very meager upbringing, and every time I look in the mirror, I feel like I'm the American dream. You know, I really came from nothing. Now I'm a surgeon. I have a good income and a reasonable life. And I have these crazy loans, and now it's - you know, hopefully, in the next, you know, year or two, I'll be able to be student-loan debt free.

CONAN: Well, congratulations, Brad. Good luck.

BRAD: All right. Thank you so much.

CONAN: Here's an e-comment from Erik in Boulder: For the folks complaining about loan terms, didn't they sign a piece of paper with the loan terms? Why are they surprised? Again, some people don't have too much patience with people who take out this money, knowing they're going to have to pay it back.

SANCHEZ: The bottom line is that this is such a complicated, convoluted process. The government hasn't made it any easier, by the way. I mean, you - the fact that you have a piece of paper in front of you, and you understand little or nothing that is on that paper - you know, certainly, it's the responsibility of an individual to find out what they're signing. But this is a process that could be so much easier and could be so much more simple. And yet, you know, it's often thought that it's in the interest of institutions and the bureaucracy to keep it complicated.

So, you know, there really hasn't been a major move other than in the initial phase, during which people apply for financial aid - called the FAFSA - you know, to go ahead and streamline that process. But other than that, I mean, the whole lending business just hasn't done nearly enough to get people to understand what exactly they're signing on to.

CONAN: This is an email from Jack who says thank you, President Obama. In the past, the Education Department was uncompromising. If I couldn't come up with the whole $600, they wouldn't accept partial payments, so I disagree with Claudio. This is a big step in the right direction - at least for him. So that may be one person - it helps. Claudio, thank you very much for your time today. We got a zillion calls and emails, and I'm sorry we couldn't get to them all.

SANCHEZ: Well, I suspect you did this show because it's Halloween, right? You wanted to scare people to death. So...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Just the high school seniors.

SANCHEZ: That's right. Good being here. Thanks.

CONAN: Thank you very much. When we come back, the world's population - seven billion, now - is on the Opinion Page. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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