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Highly educated, deeply in debt

Debilitating college loans could make millennials the first generation in the U.S. not to do better than their parents.

Rutgers-Camden law student Stephanie Martins, who owes nearly $100,000 in students loans. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)
Rutgers-Camden law student Stephanie Martins, who owes nearly $100,000 in students loans. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)Read more

To get educated these days, most students have to go into debt.

And few places have higher student debt than Pennsylvania.

Average debt per student in the commonwealth is more than $28,000, fifth-highest in the country. In New Jersey, average debt is around $23,000.

And the Philadelphia region is home to schools with some of the highest student debt anywhere.

Nationally, the average student debt is about $25,000 per person, according to 2010 figures, the latest reported by the Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS). That's the highest level of student debt in American history, up nearly 43 percent since 1996, in today's dollars.

Seventy percent of Pennsylvania students have loans, compared with 66 percent nationwide. The New Jersey figure equals the U.S. average.

Debilitating debt, experts say, could trigger a financial meltdown akin to the mortgage crisis if students don't repay their loans.

It could also make the millennials, aged 18 to 34, the first generation in America not to do better than their parents, a potential failure that has people questioning the morality of how we now pay for education:

"Is it ethical to saddle a 17-year-old who's never had experience with credit with this amount of debt?" asked Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers in Washington. "No counseling teaches the pain of repayment."

And while students suffer, lenders flourish, Nassirian added: "What's better than garnishing my wages and owning a piece of me for life?"

Overall, U.S. student debt is more than $1 trillion. This includes loans for students who attended any type of postsecondary institution - whether they graduated or not, according to the newly formed federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That total is more than all the outstanding charges on all the credit cards throughout the United States ($693 billion), or all U.S. auto loans ($730 billion).

Student loans can be dangerous for young people, who can't declare bankruptcy and walk away from their obligations, the way people with credit-card or gambling debts can. Student debt can be garnished from wages and Social Security.

"It worries me," said Mike Mychack, 24, of Port Richmond. He graduated this year with $50,000 in debt from Temple University and now works at the Bridesburg Boys & Girls Club, making less than $20,000 a year. "I'll never be able to pay the loan off at this rate."

High tuition, high debt

Commonwealth diplomas don't come cheap.

As a result, students from Pennsylvania State and Temple Universities carry some of the highest debt among state universities in America: $31,135 and $31,123, respectively, according to 2010 figures, calculated by TICAS, a nonprofit that studies education. The figures are part of the TICAS Project on Student Debt, which studies debt data voluntarily reported by colleges in a survey.

Meanwhile, St. Joseph's and Widener Universities are among the top-debt, private, nonprofit institutions in America. Average debt at St. Joseph's in 2010 was $44,336; at Widener, $40,386.

Other local colleges are listed as having student debt below the national average. Graduates from Swarthmore, Peirce, and Haverford Colleges had debts of less than $19,000 in 2010.

Among Pennsylvania public universities, high tuition often begets high debt. The commonwealth has 22 of the 30 most expensive state schools in America, most of them branches of Penn State, according to 2009-2010 figures, the most recent analyzed by the U.S. Department of Education.

Penn State's main campus' tuition of $14,416 was the highest public university tuition in the country in 2010, federal figures show. That's more than twice the $6,397 national average. Current Penn State yearly tuition is more than $15,000.

Aaron Troisi, 25, knows firsthand the difficulties of debt. He graduated in 2008 from Penn State with degrees in sociology and anthropology - and $80,000 of debt.

Eight months after graduation, Troisi got a $42,000-a-year job as a union organizer for Service Employees International Union-Healthcare Pennsylvania. His monthly loan payments totaled $600, but with his parents' help and his own frugal living, he was able to pay $1,311 per month. He was promoted to a $50,000 job, and by the end of 2011, Troisi was able to retire half the loan.

Now, he's getting a master's degree in education at Temple, with an additional $20,000 in loans.

Troisi, who lives in West Philadelphia, considers his original Penn State debt "outrageous." He added, "The loan is absolutely overwhelming. Penn State was founded to help the working class. But they're now pricing people out."

The bulk of students in America attend public colleges and universities, where state funding nationwide has been cut 2.8 percent over the last two years.

The drop in Pennsylvania's support is more than double that figure, at 7.1 percent.

At the same time, experts on college financing point out, universities are continually spending money to improve their physical plants and to make their campuses more enticing to students.

There's not much relief in South Jersey, where state funding for public schools has decreased 1.4 percent in the last two years.

At $19,344 a year, Rowan University was calculated as having the third-highest net price of public universities in America in 2009, according to the latest federal figures analyzed. (Net price is the cost of tuition, room, board, and other expenses, minus grants and scholarships.)

"Admittedly, we didn't do a good job giving scholarships" to help students defray costs, said Joe Cardona, Rowan spokesman. "We've put millions more into scholarships" since then.

As it happens, the yearly net price at Penn State's main campus was similar: $19,056.

By comparison, the 2010 net price at St. Joseph's University was $34,548 in the latest U.S. Department of Education list of private schools, 11th-highest in the nation, and the highest in the state.

University interim President John Smithson said the federal calculation unfairly penalized his school, since St. Joseph's gives a smaller amount of financial aid to a higher percentage of students.

Widener President James Harris said his graduates have high debt because the school has served a large constituency of low-income students whose families couldn't afford to contribute to college costs.

"We never want our kids to go to Widener," said Joan Mazzotti, executive director of Philadelphia Futures, which mentors low-income students for college. "They will come out with substantially more debt."

In response, Harris said, "It's unfortunate Joan said that." He added that the school has been recommending that some accepted students go to a community college for two years before coming to Widener, to save on the $34,000 tuition.

At St. Joseph's, Smithson said, costs are in line with other Jesuit schools. He added that, since 2010, St. Joseph's has been increasing financial aid to students so that its average student debt is down to around $40,000.

Neither St. Joseph's nor Widener has large endowments like Ivy League institutions, which can help defray tuition costs, education experts say.

A large portion of St. Joseph's parents make too much money to qualify for Pell grants, aimed at lower-income families, said Pauline Abernathy, vice president of TICAS. Eleven percent of St. Joseph's students receive Pell grants, half the 22 percent state average, the latest available figures show. Sixty-two percent of the 2010 graduates had debt, slightly lower than the national average of 66 percent.

Many St. Joseph's parents work and own houses, which drive up their net worth, making scholarships less likely, experts say.

St. Joseph's tuition is currently more than $36,000 a year. The cost of attendance (tuition, room, board, and other fees) in 2010 put the school at $49,900 a year, 15 percent higher than the average cost of attendance at private, four-year, nonprofit Pennsylvania universities - $43,200.

But there's some good news: St. Joseph's students have a low rate of default on their loans, which means that many graduates are at some point making enough money to keep payments current.

Certain schools - the University of Pennsylvania among them - offer financial-aid packages without loans. But often, experts say, parents are expected to contribute, and they end up taking out loans.

'A bunch of numbers'

Family conversation turns to dollars and cents, and the living room grows tense.

"Money is just a bunch of numbers to her," Paul Martins, 52, says of his daughter, Stephanie, 25, a student in her final year at Rutgers School of Law in Camden. For college and graduate school, Stephanie owes about $100,000 in student loans.

"She has no idea how much that is," Paul continues. "But she's going to find out the hard way." Stephanie stays quiet, studying her father.

Paul and his wife, Isabel, 50, are Portuguese immigrants who live in a modest house in Barrington, Camden County, with Stephanie, their only child.

Paul, who helps design pharmaceutical equipment, has a high school degree. Isabel, a paralegal, has an associate's degree.

Stephanie was a Spanish major at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Montgomery County, where the yearly cost of attendance is near $50,000.

"The biggest problem," Paul says, "is that she could've had a free ride at Rutgers."

Grants and scholarships would have paid for Stephanie's entire undergraduate education at Rutgers University-Camden. But she fell in love with Ursinus.

Both Paul and Isabel have chosen to help pay Stephanie's loans over saving for retirement. "I didn't want to look back and say, Because I was greedy, she didn't go to college," Isabel says. "My biggest joy in life is seeing my daughter succeed. But it's so difficult for her generation."

After graduation this spring, Stephanie would like to be a prosecutor. But there are few openings.

"You always can go into private practice," Isabel tells her daughter, revisiting another well-worn family issue.

"I'd rather not," Stephanie says, quietly ending the conversation.

In a private moment away from her folks, Stephanie confesses "my stomach turns" when she contemplates her debt.

"I try to avoid thinking too much about it, or I'd collapse from the stress of it all," she says. "I thank God my parents let me stay with them."

Cuts in state funding

Colleges are facing a shift in who pays their bills, concludes a recent study by the Delta Project, a nonprofit that studies college spending. Especially at public universities, the portion of costs covered by tuition is going up faster than overall spending.

At Penn State, prices are high because state appropriations are low and getting lower, spokeswoman Lisa Powers said by e-mail. "So it stands to reason that [the school] also has one of the highest tuitions."

Gov. Corbett cut funding to state schools last year and has proposed cutting 30 percent out of Penn State's budget next year.

Temple has seen a shift in its funding from state aid to tuition. In 1972, 34 percent of the school's budget was covered by tuition. Today, tuition pays 77 percent.

"The social compact - that the children of the working and middle class can get educated at our university for a fraction of what's paid at a private school - has been turned on its head," said Tony Wagner, Temple's chief financial officer.

State officials strongly disagree.

"Even when Penn State received more taxpayer dollars, it still increased tuition" in years past, wrote Tim Eller, spokesman for the state's Department of Education, via e-mail.

He added that the commonwealth makes "a significant investment on the part of Pennsylvania taxpayers."

Not true, others say.

"The antics of state cuts to universities in Pennsylvania are just nuts," said Dan Hurley, policy analyst for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in Washington.

"It would be good to see more appreciation of public higher-education access there at a time of transitioning to knowledge-age economies."

These days, more students than ever - 10 percent - graduate with high debt, defined as loans of $40,000 or more, up from 3 percent since 1996, according to the Project on Student Debt.

Among all students, African Americans carry the most levels of high debt in the United States.

About 16 percent of African American graduates owed more than $40,000 on loans in 2008, the latest year calculated. For whites, it was 10 percent; Hispanics, 8 percent; and Asians, 5 percent.

African Americans are "disproportionately recruited by and enrolled in for-profit colleges, which cost more on average," said Abernathy of TICAS.

"It's very troubling that the lowest-income students have the highest levels of student debt," she said.

A disproportionate share of African Americans have low incomes and are the first in their families to attend college, Abernathy said. They're less likely to know someone who has gone to college to stop them from enrolling at any school that pressures them to sign up.

The U.S. Department of Education has accused some for-profits of using exploitative tactics to enroll students.

With so much overwhelming student debt, defaulting on loans is increasing.

About 320,000 borrowers who started repaying their loans in 2009 defaulted by the end of 2010 - 81,000 more than the year before.

More than 50 percent of the increase is from students who attended for-profit colleges, which charge tuitions that in many cases are double those of other colleges.

At the for-profit Lincoln Technical Institute on Lansdale Avenue, about 40 percent of students are defaulting within three years of their first loan repayments - one of the highest rates in the nation, according to the latest available figures from the U.S. Department of Education.

Students who default often ruin their credit, finding themselves unable to buy homes or even to secure more student loans to try to finish school.

Things could get worse in July, when interest rates on federal student loans for low-income students are set to rise to 6.8 percent, from 3.4 percent. President Obama is fighting the hike, while Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are supporting it.

Good investment

Not all student debt is bad.

College, in fact, can be the best investment a person ever makes.

But when the class of 2012 graduates next month, its members will be entering a job market with steep competition.

"The problem isn't necessarily the $25,000 debt," said Paul Harrington, director of the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University. "It's having the debt and then making $10 an hour that's overwhelming."

Students must be more strategic in picking majors that will lead to jobs that can pay back their loans, experts say.

"It's one thing to have a six-figure debt and be graduating from medical school," noted Hurley of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "But $40,000 in debt for a social worker or public schoolteacher - that's not good at all."

Too many students don't understand that when they go to college, they're entering places of business, not cathedrals on a hill, said Nassirian, in Washington. "A lot of schools have stopped being anything but self-sustaining bureaucracies."

In the past, colleges spent most financial aid on low- or moderate-income people.

That's changed, according to U.S. Department of Education research. Nowadays, both public and private four-year colleges are spending huge amounts of aid money on merit: attracting those with better grades and SAT scores, who make the schools look more prestigious, and those with higher incomes or from out of state and other countries, who can pay the full price and offset increasing tuitions.

"Schools are always trying to boost their place on the U.S. News & World Report college rankings," said Jennifer Mishory, deputy director of the Young Invincibles, a national nonprofit for young people.

Better-ranked schools attract more and better students.

That's the basis of a report by both the University of Southern California's Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice and the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit that helps students with the admissions process.

The practice of offering aid to students without regard for need "has grown to the point of significantly reducing the funds to qualified students from lower-income households who could benefit from a college education," the report says.

In fact, rewarding merit over need is so pervasive that the average cost of college for families with incomes of $100,000 or more has actually fallen 18 percent in recent years, the report shows.

At the same time, the cost of college for families making less than $35,000 has risen 14 percent.

To be less of a burden

Plan B is turning out to be expensive. But Ryan Collins doesn't see much choice.

A religious studies major who graduated from Ursinus in 2010 with more than $20,000 in debt, Collins, 25, lives in Abington with his parents.

Ursinus accepts many low-income students and has a small endowment, says Richard DiFeliciantonio, vice president for enrollment. That might explain why the Project on Student Debt found that average debt at the college was nearly $2,000 above U.S. figures, and why 78 percent of Ursinus students graduated with debt in 2010, as compared to 66 percent nationwide, he says.

To be less of a burden, Collins - who graduated with a 3.97 grade-point average - studies acupuncture in a three-year, $51,000 program at the Won Institute of Graduate Studies in Glenside.

He uses Buddhist teachings to calm himself about the "horrifying" debt, adding, "I can't imagine a more useless major than religion." And, he adds, poking people to make a living may seem pretty strange.

"But I have friends becoming doctors," Collins adds, "and they can refer patients to me."

Both Collins' parents have master's degrees in social work. His father is disabled, and his mother is a receptionist in a dental office.

"It's time for me get independent," Collins says.

But it isn't easy.

"I know I'm going on hope," says Collins, who works part-time as a receptionist in an acupuncturist's office in Doylestown. "Jobs are limited. If I have a family some day, how can I support them with all my debt?"

Shangri-La U.

Parents love pretty campuses. And that's a problem.

To compete for the parent dollar, education experts say, college officials have long believed that they must manufacture nothing short of Shangri-La University: heaven on earth, with cable.

Health facilities, major athletic complexes, libraries, speedy Internet service - an entire society is replicated.

And that costs money.

"On the college tour," said Mazzotti of Philadelphia Futures, "they don't take you to the philosophy department. They show you the gym."

When choosing a school, families need to compromise. "Pick a more Spartan school near home and commute," Nassirian said. "Focus on the stuff that matters - not the sushi."

Another important factor: Finish what you start.

Record numbers of students are going to college - 70 percent of 2009 high school graduates entered college by October 2010, compared to 51 percent in 1975, federal figures show.

But "the rate of completion has barely budged in 30 years," said Frank Furstenberg, University of Pennsylvania sociologist.

Forty-three percent of students in four-year schools don't finish, data show.

Four-year schools aren't for everyone, experts agree, and many young people should look to community colleges for certificates in fields with paying jobs - and not to Shangri-La U.

A muddled future

Latoya McFadden, 23, sits somberly in the Center City office of Philadelphia Futures, both a success story and a cautionary tale.

She has large eyes and a soft voice. The word Glamour is tattooed on her right forearm.

McFadden lives with her mother in Olney, commuting two hours each way by bus to a part-time job in a Montgomery County wine shop.

She owes more than $20,000 in student loans, difficult enough if she had a college degree.

But she's two years short. And with a current salary of $11.34 an hour, her future looks muddled.

"Having this debt makes me feel stress," says McFadden. "I'm depressed."

Flanked by Mazzotti from Philadelphia Futures and one of her directors, Christina Santos, McFadden has the look of a chastened child.

McFadden, in love with fashion, was an A and B student at Fels High School in the Northeast.

With help from the Futures group, McFadden got into Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 2007, a state school near Pittsburgh.

Her financial package included grants without loans, covering her entire tuition.

But McFadden wanted to be in fashion design, and Indiana offered only fashion merchandising.

So, after a semester, McFadden transferred to the Art Institute of Philadelphia, a private, for-profit school.

"We strongly discouraged that," Santos says.

Tuition at the institute was $17,034 a year. McFadden took out loans for the first year. Midway through her sophomore year in 2008-09, she needed more money. Her mother, a security guard, had already taken out a student loan for McFadden and didn't want to cosign another.

McFadden was posting a nifty 3.3 grade-point average at the institute. But there was no more money - she had to leave.

Now she must manage two loans. One is temporarily deferred, the other costs $50 a month.

Paying it all back could take a lot of years.

"She's worse off than when she started," Santos says. "Debt with no degree."

McFadden can't retire her loans unless she gets a college-level job. But she can't finish college until she gets more loans.

"It's a significant Catch-22," Santos says.

"Right now, I'm sunk," McFadden says.

Mazzotti hugs McFadden. Then later, with McFadden gone, she says, "I wish the banks lending students money would put out 5,000 one-dollar bills on the table before the kids sign the loans.

"Then they could see just what they're getting into."