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Rising tide of debt, tough job market hurting college grads
The Grove sales manager Michelle Brown answers questions from a resident. Brown graduated from Georgia Southern University in May of 2014 and has been able to defer payments on her largest student loan while she settles into a career. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

The cost to attend college has risen sharply over the years. Not surprisingly, so has the number of college graduates with large amounts of debt.
    According to Project on Student Debt’s website, Georgia Southern University’s average debt for 2012 graduates was $21,562, and 68 percent of graduates left Georgia Southern with some sort of debt. Project on Student Debt is a nonprofit research organization that has the goal of creating “cost-effective solutions” for students in college, according to its website.
    GSU graduates’ average debt is still less than the state average of $23,089 and the national average of $29,400 for the Class of 2012.
    Georgia Southern graduates’ average debt was actually $1,941 higher than their peers from the University of Georgia ($19,621). However, Georgia Southern alumni’s average debt was still lower than 2012 graduates of the Georgia Institute of Technology ($26,412), Valdosta State University ($23,826) and Georgia State University ($21,817).
    The national average increased by 6 percent every year from 2008 to 2012, Project on Student Debt says. Georgia graduates are better off than many of their peers around the nation, as the Peach State is ranked 37th for highest debt amounts.
    As if the rising debt load isn’t enough, many of these college graduates are having a hard time finding a job in the field in which they studied.
Deferring repayment
    J.J. Crawford graduated from Georgia Southern in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and with a debt of $26,000.
    “I had to borrow money to live on. I had to borrow everything, so I borrowed the max that I could borrow and I lived off it,” Crawford said. “I used it for books and tuition and living expenses.” 
    After graduating, Crawford got a job teaching high school Spanish. He chose to defer his loans because he could not afford to pay them back immediately.
    He continued teaching for a year and a half. After that time, Crawford realized that the formal classroom wasn’t really something he was interested in and that his real passion was with theater.
     Over the course of 19 years — and several deferrals on loan payments — Crawford has seen a $56,000 increase in his loan amount because of interest rates and now has a debt of $82,000 to pay back.
    Crawford has come to terms with that fact that this is one debt that he will likely be paying for the rest of his life.
    “I’m glad I have an education, and I’m glad for the education I have,” he said. “I just wish I would have taken a different route to get it.” 
    Crawford plans to return to Georgia Southern in the fall with the assistance of the Tuition Assistance Program, a program that waives tuition fees for university employees who have been working for the university for longer than six months. TAP covers up to nine credit hours of the fees a semester and pays for books and materials needed for courses. 
    This time around, Crawford said he will focus on theater, with teaching and directing ultimately being his main goal.
    “I’ve always known I loved the performing arts,” he said. “But I got a lot of flak from friends at school. ... I heard people say things like ‘you can’t make any money,’ ‘you have to have a plan B.’ I didn’t pursue that degree because — for many reasons ... mostly based in fear.”
    Although Crawford allowed others to influence his decisions when he originally began school, he is determined not to let that happen this time.
    “I listened to the negative,” he said. “Most people hear it; I just chose to listen and internalize it. My advice would be to do it.”
Income-based repayment
    Michelle Brown, a 2013 Georgia Southern graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and public relations, is working toward paying off the $35,000 college debt she acquired. Brown began receiving financial aid in 2007, when she began her freshman year at East Georgia State College. 
    “We used financial aid to make sure that I could live and things like that were paid for. I came out lucky,” she said. “My parents also took out loans to pay, so they have just as much to pay towards (debt) as well. But without that, I couldn’t have gone to school.”
    Brown began paying her student loans back in January, six months after she graduated. Although she has only begun paying off her loans, she already has noticed a difference in her everyday lifestyle.
    “I’ve only been paying on it for six months, but it’s still a hit on my paycheck every month when I have to make sure that’s paid,” she said.
    Brown is currently the sales and marketing manager for The Grove Statesboro apartment complex, working on a salary-based income.
    “I get paid twice a month, so I typically try to pay a little bit out of both paychecks. I just take (money) out of each paycheck that I get so my interest doesn’t keep going up,” she said.
    Out of the seven payment plans available, Brown is using the income-driven plan in which her income dictates the amount she pays each month on her loans. Although this plan is beneficial to Brown now, she feels it could have a negative impact on her future.
    “If I continue to do what’s called income-based payments, if I change jobs and make more money, my rate goes up. I could eventually still be single and paying almost $500 on a student loan payment. And that’s a lot,” she said.
Job, credit rating worries
    Courtney Cox, a 2013 Georgia Southern graduate who majored in general studies, also is working to pay off her $35,000 college debt.
    Cox started her freshman year at Georgia Southern in 2009 and received financial aid, including the federal Pell Grant. 
    “I used the loans to pay off tuition, the rest of my tuition, and to pay all of my rent for all the semesters and various bills,” she said.
    Cox started out as an education major, but because of various department rules, she changed her major her senior year to general studies. She also earned a minor in family and child development.
    “I have always wanted to work with children,” she said. “And although things may have not gone as planned, I will do whatever it takes to get there.”
    Unfortunately, Cox has had difficulties finding a job after graduation. She has been fortunate enough to work various jobs to make ends meet but hopes to find one that will make use of her bachelor’s degree and minor.
    “Every job I have found online is, as long as you have your GED or graduated high school, you can apply for,” Cox said. “Or you need this many amount of years of experience. How will we get experience if we can’t find a job?”
    Cox is working as a part-time activity coordinator for Camp Cherokee throughout the summer and will begin as site manager in the fall for various after-school programs. Even though she is working with children, the part-time position is not enough to make ends meet.
     “I’m happy to work with kids, but it is not enough to live off of, let alone begin paying back my loans,” Cox said.
    If she should run into trouble paying back her loans, the effects could be long-lasting — something that worries her.
    “I stress out every single day. I have really good credit, and it drives me crazy thinking I could ruin my credit just because I don’t have enough money to pay back my loans,” she said.

Advice for future students
    In early June, Senate Republicans denied a bill set in place by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., which would have given people who owed money on student loans the opportunity to refinance their student loans at lower rates. Warren’s bill was said to have possibly been able to help 25 million borrowers save about $2,000 over span of paying back their loans, according to The Associated Press.
    Without the assist from financial aid and the loans borrowed, Brown, Cox and Crawford would not have been able to attend school. They all feel that if they hadn’t gone to school, they would not be able to get the jobs they want.
    “Typically, you can’t get a job unless you had an education. I don’t think it’s fair to tell someone that you have to pay this huge lump sum to get an education that you have to have regardless to even get a job in the real world to begin with,” Brown said.
    Cox also felt that without a degree, it would be impossible to find a job.
    “It seems that more and more of us are having a difficult time finding a job after graduation related to what we went to school for,” Cox said. “But without it, we wouldn’t even be considered for the position. We all paid too much to still be looking.”
    As for any advice the Georgia Southern alumni would give to current and future college students, they all had the same theme: Make sure you know what you want you do, and, if possible, try to earn income while in school so you can start saving money early.
    “You can start paying on your interest as soon as you get them, which is something that I should have done,” Brown said. “Pay on your interest early is the biggest thing, because that’s how it gets so much larger. And just avoid having (loans). If you can find a part-time job to pay for your school books, I suggest doing that rather than pulling out loans.”

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