As a group of six people in their 20s and 30s sat around a focus-group table several weeks ago to talk about their college experiences — and their debts — observers behind a mirrored window listened, sometimes incredulously.
One young woman talked about her selection of John Carroll University as a career choice. The school’s reputation will get her a job, she thought as she made her 11th-hour decision a few years ago.
But as she works three jobs, approaches graduation and her college debts mount, she has come to realize that her co-workers at a Cleveland area restaurant went to John Carroll, too.
And some have degrees.
“I’m like, why are you here?” she said.
Debts. They all had them, and they’re looking at a world where jobs are scarce and pay is below expectations.
One anticipates debt of $60,000 to $80,000 for a bachelor’s degree in psychology, knowing that she needs a master’s to get a job in her field and a doctorate to open a practice.
As the group of people sorted through their feelings about their futures, their discussion bounced from youthful exuberance to crushing realities. They hope to achieve college degrees but owe their souls to the company store — the banks — and some are pledging their parents’ homes and incomes, too.
This is what they were told to do to achieve the dream, and all would be good.
The discussion was held as part of the Beacon Journal’s America Today project, exploring the difficult issues that are dividing the nation. The sessions were held in conjunction with the Taylor and Bliss institutes at the University of Akron.
The participants were granted confidentiality in exchange for a free-flowing conversation involving some difficult personal situations.
Sitting around the table were the following:
• A high school teacher from suburban Akron who finished college in 1997 with $24,000 in debt, has paid $32,000 in principle and interest so far and still owes $8,000.
• An Akron mother of four, including two in high school, who has accumulated between $25,000 and $30,000 in debt at a for-profit university and has yet to finish a two-year degree. She said she has been shut out because of an unpaid $500 fee and no longer looks at the loan statements because she has no money to make payments.
• An Akron hospital professional who finished her master’s in 1998 and 14 years later has an outstanding student debt of $54,000. She is from out of state.
• A recent Kent State University graduate from suburban Akron who moved out of state to teach, returned after a difficult experience and is looking for a teaching job here. She has about $3,200 in debt.
• Two juniors at John Carroll University, one from suburban Akron working on an early education degree and the other, from out of state, studying psychology. One has debt of about $25,000, the other anticipates $60,000 to $80,000 by the time she finishes.
• Alice Rodgers, the focus group facilitator, who has worked with the newspaper for more than 20 years in exploring social issues, among them race, voting, relationships, public education and home schooling.
Beacon Journal reporters Carol Biliczky, who covers higher education, and Betty Lin-Fisher, who covers consumer finance issues, and managing editor Doug Oplinger were among the observers and organized the two-hour conversation that follows.
Each new paragraph represents a change in speakers.This is an abridged version of a longer narrative available on Ohio.com.
What is the cost?
“Expensive. Very expensive.”
“I said that then and I say it now. I have five considerably younger siblings, one of whom is in college now. And … I’m like, good luck.”
“I have all private loans. Bad idea.”
“Every kind of loan possible. I’m in big trouble,” followed by laughs.
And you owe?
“I think right now I’m at like $30,000 to $40,000. By the time I graduate probably like $60,000 to $80,000 and that’s just undergrad … I’m not exactly sure because I still have like another year. I don’t really know exactly how much. My mom kind of does everything for me, so I don’t really look at it, but I know it’s about a little less than $20,000 a year in loans.
And you still have to do your master’s.
“When I graduated with my bachelor’s I had $24,000 in debt and that was 1997. I had a Perkins loan for $4,000. I immediately paid that off with graduation money. And then I had the various Stafford loans that I had accrued. I had $20,000 and some change. Was broke, starting, I was fortunate enough to get a job right out of school. Put loans in forbearance [forbearance means the borrower stops making payments for a designated period], interest accrued, eventually consolidated those with Sallie Mae and have been paying on those since late 1998.”
So what did your forbearance end up costing you?
“For two years it was I think a little over $4,000. Currently I still owe $8,000. Paying for 12 years now. Which is when you add up what I’ve paid thus far, when you look at the numbers and the interest rates, it’s $32,000 … I still owe $8,000. And will probably pay $12,000 more to pay off $8,000.
“When I finished my undergrad it was between $14,000 and $15,000 I think that I had. And then when I got my master’s it blew up by like an additional $27,000. And really, what’s killed me, is I’ve had no choice but to go into forbearance several times because otherwise I could not buy groceries or whatever … So now I’m sitting at somewhere between $53,000 and $54,000. And fortunately, because I work in a nonprofit, thank you President Obama, it’ll be forgiven in about nine years, but I still have to pay on it all that time. So I’m coughing up close to $400 a month.”
“I think right now I have $25,000, I want to say. Because my freshman and sophomore year cost a lot more than this past year. And then by the time I graduate it’ll probably be $30,000 … I’m debating if I should just go right into teaching and see if I can get a job or if I should just go right into a master’s program.”
“I believe my loans are about $25,000 and if I enroll through University of Phoenix for my bachelor’s program, that’s going to cost me $30,000.
$25,000 from where?
“My junior, my freshman and sophomore year. [She has not yet completed a two-year degree and cannot attend any more classes until she settles a $500 fee dispute.]
“University of Phoenix is calling me because they want me to hurry up and take care of the $500 debt, so I can hurry up and get into the bachelor’s program. But I don’t even think I want to go for my bachelor’s. Because before I even started college my total debt was only about $3,000 and now with the student loans, I don’t know where I’m going to get $25,000 to even pay the — that’s why I haven’t even bothered to call them because I’m struggling now just to pay my monthly expenses and raise four kids …So I think I’m just going to go ahead and just finish my associate’s degree and just hang it up. Because I don’t want to incur any more additional expenses. It’s stressful.”
Raising children yourself?
“Yes. Because my children’s father got murdered about four years ago.”
“At the time when I was in college my parents were still married and they both had pretty good jobs. I borrowed $5,000. Currently owe $3,200. Since then my parents have divorced and it hasn’t been the cleanest divorce. So I have a younger brother who has to borrow the rest of his college. He’s about $25,000 in the hole right now … And my mom helps him out the best that she can, but she also has 4-stage breast cancer, so if she didn’t work she would have $500,000 in debt … with treatments and stuff. She has to work to get her medicine, so …
Any co-signers on your loans?
“My mom freaks out every once in a while. She’s like, ‘… I don’t know how you’re not getting worried about this, my name’s on that, you need to start to figure out what you’re going to do.’ But I mean, how can I worry about it? I still have to go to grad school.”
How much thought did you give to debt?
“I realized the magnitude. My dad to this day is the kind of person that if he can’t pay cash for it, he will not have it. So he sat with me and he’s like, you need to — I’m like yeah, yeah, it’ll be fine. And it is fine. I can pay my bills and whatever. I mean we went through line by line and he made me very aware of what I was doing.”
Money for living
“I use mine for just living expenses. And plus I have four kids, too.”
“I didn’t really even think about it as an undergrad, but the school I went to, you pretty much lived on campus … But when I was in graduate school … I took out, I mean I maxed out my graduate loans because I did have to pay rent and utilities and I didn’t have a car payment at the time, but, yeah, I lived off of them. And actually, if I wouldn’t have gone to graduate school, I would not be sitting here. When I finished college I only had like $14,000 and now I have like $54,000.”
“I’ve had it in forbearance a few times, so interest compounds.”
“I take out loans for rent, for food, for books, for …”
“No, not my car payment, I pay for that. Yeah, I have a car payment on top of my loans. Then I take out for utilities, too, because I figured it out, like living on campus, living off campus. I live in a house, it would be cheaper to take out loans for my rent and my utilities and food rather than having a meal plan and living on campus having room and board.”
You’re living in a house?
“Living in a house. There’s five of us. I pay like $300, a little over $300 every month for rent. And then I pay utilities on top of that. So I have loans out for that. Because I would have had to take out loans for room and board and a meal plan anyway, so I have a certain amount of money to spend.”
Living off campus is saving money?
“Pretty much, yeah. If I lived on campus I would have to take out the $4,000 to $6,000 it is for room on campus, to board, plus the ridiculous amount of money it costs to have a meal plan. So it’s cheaper to live off-campus and take out loans for rent and food than to live on campus.”
And you get your loan check cut to the school and they reimburse you?
How many of you work while in school?
“Like, I work at the Cheesecake Factory. I’m a server, and I do pretty well there. But I also work a lot and I bust my [butt] doing it. And I have three jobs. I have two jobs on campus and I have the Cheesecake Factory.”
How many hours a week?
“Probably 25. And plus I have 18 credit hours. And if I baby-sit on top of that and have a social life, honestly I’m on the go.”
“I have two jobs, too.”
There’s “kind of like a hidden stress. It’s almost just kind of …”
“I just get frustrated because I’m not even in school. They won’t let me in school.”
“It haunts you.”
“Yeah, you don’t really think about it every day, but then like when you have a conversation about this kind of stuff, it’s like I guarantee you I’m leaving here like, oh, my God, so stressed out.”
“I have to do what it takes to survive and if that means I have to work six to seven days a week, which is what I do now, then I have to just suck it up and do it.”
“What are you going to do, stress about it your whole life? You just kind of have to put it in the back of your head.”
“I’m just going to admit, when they said Sallie Mae sends me my statements, I don’t look at them because I don’t have the money to pay them, you know? I don’t even call them. I probably should. But I think I’m going to call them tomorrow.”
“I majored in philosophy. I clearly was not thinking about anything,” followed by group laughs.
“I started as a pre-law major. I was naive about what being a lawyer really was and what it entailed and getting beyond like the courtroom dramas that we see on TV and figuring that you’re sitting in a room and reading all day for the most part. Decided to go into education … Best decision I’ve ever made in my life, love what I do.”
“I would like to pursue a [two-year] degree in communications, bachelor’s degree in education, but right now I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”
“I’m in psychology, I need to further my education and go to grad school to get a decent job. [I’ll] probably get my master’s. Maybe eventually my Ph.D., but something specialized so I can either start my own practice …”
Picking a college
“In going to a school and coming out — not to say anything like bad about any other school, but coming out of a school like John Carroll is looked very highly on. You may get the job because you’re from John Carroll. It has a very good reputation and even people in Rochester, N.Y., four hours away, are like, ‘Oh, wow, you go to John Carroll, that’s awesome.’ Because people know John Carroll. It’s a good name. It could mean the difference between you getting a job or someone else getting a job. So you are paying for the name of the school you go to.”
“I didn’t see a difference where I got my degree, if I have a music ed degree from Kent, Akron, wherever. It just made the most sense to me. And plus kind of gave me more scholarship money. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough. My parents had enough money to pay for my tuition, but they said if you want to live on campus you’re going to have to take out a loan, and I said, ‘I don’t want to be stuck with it later.’ I’m going to have to get a master’s degree eventually. That’s why I decided to live at home for two years. I think I would have enjoyed living in a dorm, but I made a choice for myself. It made the most sense to me at the time. And I have friends now my age, we get together at the bar and stuff, and like they’re working minimum-wage jobs, trying to pay off these crazy loans. And I honestly don’t have a really big loan payment right now, so I feel like I made the right choice for myself.”
“I decided where I was going April 30, the day before you had to decide. I remember I was like, ‘Oh, my God, what are we going to do?’ And I’m sitting there, we’re going through all the finances, I’m literally writing a pros and cons list for both schools. Finally at 11:59 I’m like, ‘I think I’m going to go to John Carroll.’ I was originally a business major. … I had already come in with a ton of courses from [the University of Akron]. Because I’m ahead of the game, I need to decide. Then I was like: Do I do business? I can’t really teach unless I go and get licensure and I thought I would teach an older grade. Or do I do education and if I really did want to do business, I could technically do business if I really wanted. You don’t technically have to have a business degree to do business. And so…”
“I feel like a lot of times like you just need a degree.”
Are there jobs?
“[I’m looking for a job in] music ed or general ed, things like that. I applied for a job and they told me that 500 people had applied for the same job and they picked 20 people to interview. It’s crazy.”
“I’m worried [about graduating] because I’m an early childhood education major. I mean obviously there’s not very many jobs out there now for that. Especially in Ohio. I guess if I want to go somewhere, I can.”
“I think you have to be more creative about what you’re going to do. You have to resign yourself to the fact that you might not be working where you want to work. But you have to do what you have to do to pay your bills. You want your phone? It costs money. You want AAA? It costs money. Where are you going to get your money? Working a job. Whatever, I don’t care, I want my AAA, I want my phone and I want my health insurance, so that’s what I have to do.”
“I think jobs are aplenty. It’s just a matter of what type of job, but there are jobs to be had.”
“I think it’s a hard world for everybody.”
“A lot of people are over-qualified.”
“That’s just like a college graduate with a degree and they’re working at a restaurant. Every person I work with at Cheesecake Factory, they will be like. ‘When I was in college or when I did this.’ I’m, like, why are you here?”
“I feel like I’m a better person for going to college, but I don’t have the luxury that my mother had 30 years ago finding a job. I have to take what I’m offered and stick with it. However, working in the South for a year, I know that no job is worth my sanity, so I gladly take working my three jobs over working in rural South Carolina.”
“Actually it probably could be better for high school graduates because they won’t have to worry about any student loans.”
Are students duped?
“Realistically, though, a question that I pose, and nothing against philosophy majors: Are those colleges negligent for offering such majors now? You said, ‘Who’s going to hire a philosophy major?’ They’re selling a bill of goods to kids. ‘Hey, come to our school, be a philosophy major, come out $30,000 in debt.’ ”
“I didn’t care that I was getting a degree in philosophy. I was not intimidated by that. I was not going to let anybody else tell me [what to do].”
“Is that system broken, though? That’s the question. I asked kids today in class, knowing that I was coming here, I asked my kids in class, ‘Would you go to college just for the sake of going to college and expanding your knowledge level?’ Ninety percent of them [said] no. Why are you going to college? ‘So I can get a good job.’ That’s the expectation.”
“Even with education, I hear every single day, why are you going into that? You’re not going to get a job. OK, cool. Well, every other kid in my school is going into business. Are they all going to get jobs? Like, I don’t know. Who knows what the future holds.”
“I don’t know if we grasp the financial impact when we’re 18 years old. I don’t think we do a great job … most of us at 18 years old or however old, we looked at the bottom line. Here’s what you have to pay out of pocket right now. Your parents are paying $3,500. Did you really go through and look at that paper and say, ‘Well, geez, there’s $7,000 of a federally subsidized loan that I’m going to have to pay?’ I think the liberal arts schools are awesome at doing that.”
“I would say I was an honors AP student in high school. I’d like to think that I was a great student. I had no clue or concept about the financial world whatsoever.”
“I knew I was going to have loans and I knew like the extent of like how much it was going to be and I did my pros and cons with all the other schools and I was like this school is going to be, like I’ll have $80,000, so I don’t want that. This school is going to be like $40,000, so I’ll do that. But I don’t think I really — I still don’t think I even really fully grasp like student loans and like the interest and how much I’m going to actually be paying later on.”
“I was the first person in my family to go to college. They were like you need to go to Penn State or Edinboro [University] or something because we can’t afford a private school and I was like, well, yeah, you can, or yeah, I can. I’m going to get far more assistance going to a private school. I think a lot of people don’t realize that.”
“You have to sit down and figure it out because in the long run it’s less for you to go to John Carroll than to OU, whatever.”
College for all?
“I don’t think college is for everyone. I don’t think it’s for everyone.”
“Trades are in demand. But what I’m saying, with society now, you have four children, I have one, I don’t sit here and say, ‘Geez … I can’t wait until you grow up to be a landscaper.’ That’s the American dream. That’s part of the bill of goods we’ve been sold is that every generation wants your children to do better. The projections are this young generation of people who are in their 20s right now are going to be the first generation since the Great Depression who, unfortunately, aren’t going to do better than a parent.”
“Well, I have three teenage daughters, I have a freshman and I’m going to have a senior. And the freshman, she wants to be a veterinarian. My daughter that’s graduating next year, she wants to go into physical therapy. Well, whatever you want to do I’m going to back you and I wish you the best, because I want you to do better than me because I don’t want you to follow my footsteps. But when they go to college, I don’t want them to be sitting here like us, like ‘Oh, my gosh, nobody told me about this.’ But I tell them, too, if you don’t have any kids any time soon, if it’s just you when you graduate, I’m sure you can find a decent job that’s going to take care of just you.”
“My uncle and aunt both don’t have college degrees. They’re doing very well for themselves.”
“My older brother tried college. It didn’t work for him. He went into landscaping, is very good at it, does pavers, does everything. He does that in the summertime, plows in the wintertime. And him and his wife, she’s a social worker, and so I mean obviously she doesn’t make that much money and they both survive. They do pretty well. They have a house. They do pretty well for themselves. They bought a house, they have a little girl and she’s not struggling at all. She’s getting everything she wants.”
“I lived at home for two years and what I enjoyed about it was that I had free laundry. [Laughter] I made some friends who liked to get into some drama, like my first two years, so when they were having their drama in the dorm, I could leave. No loud noises at night. I don’t mind like partying and stuff, but sometimes you hear things you don’t really want to hear at night. [Laughter] I’d go home and sleep in my own bed. Nobody is snoring. So that’s what I enjoyed about it. And then I moved into an apartment with a roommate for the third year, so I just didn’t want to live in a dorm, it wasn’t really my thing.”
“It’s just, as a shared frustration, my parents didn’t have two nickels to rub together when I went to college. And no offense, but the football players at my school, because it was a big football school, some of them, they had to pay [no] tuition because they could get football scholarships because it’s… so their tuition was a dollar.”
“My sister is awesome with money. She’s a go-getter. But she also lived with my mom for those two years, so of course she’s going to be able to save a lot more because my mom paid for basically everything. And she didn’t have like a car payment or anything like that … I lived in a crappy apartment about two blocks from the library school at Pitt. So I mean I walked to school.
About friends: “… they used their loans for like gas and food and stuff and I worked 40 hours a week for my five years in college and in the summertime. So I didn’t really have to deal with that. But I did sacrifice a lot. I don’t know if I had the great social life.”
“I was working like 30 hours a week making like a good amount of money, plus baby-sitting. But I was going from class to baby-sitting to working at a job.”
“And I couldn’t do my school work. So it wasn’t a matter of socializing, like I don’t really like socialize that much right now because I have so much school work that I can’t even work. Because I have so much school to do.”
“I’ve seen young people now waiting. I read an article recently, the last two years graduating class, 85% of graduates have moved back home with their parents.”
“I’m going back.”
“I think if you’re going to do things like buy a house and have kids — not everybody feels this way, but I feel like I need to be a little bit more secure in my life before I make decisions like that. Like I bought a car and I was like traumatized. [Laughter] And so when you have something sticking to the bottom of your foot and you can’t get out of it, like a student loan or a car payment … Have a job that you see yourself in for the next five, 10 years. I don’t feel comfortable like getting married or bringing somebody else into this world when I’m not …
“Well, when you marry somebody you marry their debt. You marry their family. You marry their debt. You marry their bad habits. It’s not just marrying the person.”
What about people who don’t need loans?
“Like we have a friend, her parents make less than $40,000 and they’re in this program, it’s called OAI. And literally they pay $3,500 the entire year. And she goes to school and all she has to do is like take — she has to do like some service time.
“Could you imagine? No. I don’t even know what she did, but she’s literally – she’s like my tuition is a dollar. I was like, how? How did you get that? She’s like, I don’t know, because my mom is out of a job and this other thing. And like OK, that still sucks for me. [Laughter] I tried.”
“Going back to people who have no debt coming out of college, I’ll just speak from personal experience. My boyfriend, he did not pay for — he had his parents for the whole college and now he has a graduate assistantship. I feel like his academic maturity is a little more than his emotional maturity. He doesn’t realize what it’s going to be like when he gets out in the world and say oh, your brakes went, oh, your struts went, oh, your whatever.
“Yeah. You’re not going to really realize it until it’s happening. Until you’re out of school and you actually have to start paying it back.”
“I think so many young people look at well, it’s 6% interest, I’m paying 6% on — well, 6% of $25,000 is this. No, that’s not how it works. They don’t understand how interest compounds, how it accrues.”
“Going to college, yeah, I’m going to college. You don’t think about like paying for it. You’re ready to go, like start a new chapter in your life. When I was looking at colleges I was like sure, they’re going to give me like $18,000 a year, whatever, let’s go. And I wasn’t really like paying attention to ‘I’m going to have to pay it off.’ ”
So you really didn’t think about affording it in your budget or anything…
“No,” adding that she also was managing house payments.
Can you save?
“Not really. But whatever.”
Are you concerned about that?
“…Yeah. But I don’t — I live for today.”
Are you facing college debt? What if anything should be done to fix the problem of growing debt burdens?