When Tommie Moneypenny studied nursing, she didn’t worry about how much debt she was taking on.
She’d always had a passion for helping people and seen much of the health-care system firsthand with a brother who was hard-of-hearing because of a nerve problem. A single mother, this seemed like the right time to switch careers.
Now, though, she’s facing a problem common to many college graduates — too much debt and no real way to pay it off.
“While I don’t regret my career choice, I do regret the educational debt,” said Moneypenny, 56, of Akron. “My payments are close to $400 a month. I feel like I am truly paying the government to work.”
With average student debt climbing yearly, 2012’s graduates owe about $29,400, according to the Institute on College Access and Success’ Project on Student Debt.
Their actual debt is likely higher because the reporting college may not have been aware of students’ private loans and loans that parents took out.
Today’s students have to consider not only what they want to be, but how much the career might pay and if they can afford to pay back the student loans.
It is a tricky trifecta to negotiate when the clock is ticking and college costs keep rising and loans are easy to get.
“Young people cannot stumble into a major,” said Drexel University economics professor Neeta Fogg, author of College Majors Handbook With Real Career Paths and Payoffs. “It has to be a deliberate decision based on solid information.”
UA challenges students
The University of Akron is trying to prod students into making those decisions more quickly and based on fact.
Among state universities, UA is fifth statewide in the percent of students with debt and lowest in the amount of debt, according to new numbers reported in December by the Institute on College Access and Success.
UA is testing a pilot program that requires students with less than 48 credit hours — or up to about halfway through their sophomore year — to see an academic counselor three times to ensure that they’ve established a major and are on a path to graduating as soon as possible.
“We want them to think earlier rather than later,” said adviser Bernadette Citano.
However, not all students are realistic about the major they chose and how much they could expect it to pay.
Some students “have unrealistic expectations,” said Kent State career counselor Jody Patterson. “They tend to think that with a bachelor’s degree they’re going to make $45,000 to $50,000 initially, which we all know is not true.”
Often, she said, “I have to deliver some realism.”
That realism may include information about what jobs are expected to pay. For example, Georgetown University’s 2011 study — “Hard Times: Not all College Degrees are Created Equal” — fleshes out the unemployment rates and earnings for new college graduates and for those with some work experience under their belt. Students “should do their homework before picking a major because, when it comes to employment prospects and compensation, not all college degrees are created equal,” according to the report.
Architecture grads fared the worst (almost 14 percent unemployment) and the arts, humanities and liberal arts and social science weren’t far behind (from about 9 to 11 percent).
Engineering majors fared the best, and the National Association of Colleges and Employers backs that up: Technical majors, especially engineering, led the list of top-paid majors for the Class of 2013.
Those, though, are the lucky ones.
Forty-one percent of new college graduates land in jobs that don’t require a college degree, said Fogg, the Drexel University economist.
She said the “malemployed” college graduates earn just 5 to 7 percent more than their counterparts with high school diplomas as they stock shelves and make coffee drinks.
Even worse, their shift into jobs in their intended field is slow or doesn’t happen at all, she said.
“It’s much more difficult than it was in the past,” when students could make mistakes and recover fairly quickly, she said.
Wanting a do-over
Regardless of whether they land in their chosen career field, two-thirds of graduates nationwide walk away with debt — about $27,000 for Ohioans in federal loans only. Private loans and federal loans to parents aren’t computed. The debt can be crippling.
For instance, Brittany Buchwalter, 27, of Wadsworth earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Tiffin University in 2009. She borrowed $82,000 to get her degree and that since has ballooned to $94,000 because of interest.
She has a job as a case manager, but her $1,000-a-month loan payments take about half of her take-home income each month.
“It’s hard making ends meet sometimes and I question if it was all really worth it to pay as much as I do now. Probably not,” she said.
If she had to do it all over, she said she would live at home, commute to the lower-cost UA and keep her borrowing to $15,000.
“I feel that amount would be manageable and I could pay it back and not feel overwhelmed,” she said.
$172,000 in debt
For Jeffrey McCants, 28, who now goes by Chase McCants, journalism was an enticing major that got him into the classroom and interested in studying. But the downside has been severe: $121,400 in loans for a degree from Ohio State in 2007 and no job in journalism.
Instead he has worked as a corporate trainer for an online company amid debt that has grown to a mind-boggling $172,000, he said.
Family and friends urged him to borrow the money to attend OSU as an out-of-state student: “Unfortunately, they weren’t educated enough in the subject to advise me on it,” he said.
He said he might have done better to establish a residency in Ohio so that he could pay in-state tuition and pursue a degree like nursing, which he believes would enable him to better pay back his loans.
Maybe then he wouldn’t have to give up his car — as he recently did — or moonlight in a second job to keep up with his loan payments.
But even nursing may not be a panacea.
Moneypenny first pursued training as a licensed practical nurse and then as a registered nurse when she moved back to Ohio and couldn’t find a job as an administrator.
When she graduated from the for-profit Herzing University in 2009, she had amassed about $45,000 in debt and at 52, just 14 years to pay it back before she retires.
She relishes her job of caring for the dying but has to live on a tight budget if she is to retire her debt by the time she retires. Four years already have ticked by.
“I’m praying to be able to do so,” she said.
Carol Biliczky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3729.