Real debt gives college seniors cause for real concern

  • Article by: KARLEE WEINMANN and JEFF SHELMAN , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: March 1, 2008 - 12:11 PM

An ailing economy and years of loan payments add up to anxiety for those entering the job market.

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Augsburg College senior Anna Backman estimates her student-loan debt at $20,000 or more. According to the Project on Student Debt, graduates of Minnesota colleges and universities start further behind than most of their counterparts nationally.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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University of St. Thomas senior Ryan Daniels realizes just how crucial it is for him to find a job. Pronto.

"I'm looking at about $50,000 in debt," the business management major said while attending a job fair in Minneapolis last week. "I'm a little bit nervous to face all that debt, but right now, it's just a motivation to find a job."

Stress is always part of that search for a first real job, but the ailing economy has left many college students, facing years of loan payments, more stressed than ever.

Minnesota shed 23,000 jobs over the final six months of 2007, and the state projects that job growth this year will be nearly stagnant. Unemployment in the state has risen by 15 percent over the past year. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke isn't ready to use the "R" word for the whole country, but state economist Tom Stinson declared last month, "Minnesota is in a recession."

Meanwhile, the undergraduate class of 2006 in Minnesota was left with more average debt than all but three other states and the District of Columbia. That burden has students scrambling to choose majors more likely to lead to high salaries, and soon-to-be graduates wondering whether the troubled job market has a place for them.

"I don't really think the full concept of having to pay back loans has really hit me yet," said Anna Backman, a senior majoring in business management at Augsburg College who estimated her student-loan debt at $20,000 or more. "Obviously, once I get a job, it'll be a lot less nerve-racking."

"You can't help but think of all the other graduates and how much competition that is," Backman said.

Weathering the changes

Many students -- including some as young as freshmen -- are trying to figure out how to best position themselves to weather the economy.

Do they consider a major where job prospects are brighter, even if it isn't their first choice? Do they go to graduate school to improve their credentials and ride out the recession?

"It's hard to put that in historical perspective, but I do think that students are very aware now of what school is costing them," said Matthew Hanson, coordinator for career services at the University of Minnesota's counseling office. "And it's at least a concern for them as they're thinking about their future."

Diane Crist, the director of career development at St. Thomas, sees that concern as discouraging students from one crucial profession.

"Students come in and say that they're interested in teaching, say it looks interesting, but they're afraid to do that because they're afraid they won't make money," Crist said.

Macalester freshman Alexis Abrams-Bourke is interested in the arts, but as she chooses a major, she's thinking about the career prospects.

"It's scary to think that you'd do a job you didn't love because you needed whatever health insurance or money," Abrams-Bourke said. "Maybe my process would've been clearer if I wasn't so concerned about the economy, but at this point, I'm not really sure."

Finding a compromise was important to St. Thomas senior Kate Tschida. Originally a biology major, Tschida will graduate with an English-business double major. She called the duo, "one fun and one functional."

"You're very much on pins and needles when nearing graduation because you understand the job market's unstable, especially when you only have an undergrad degree," she said.

Tschida is doing a lot less worrying now, having landed a job at General Mills.

The debt factor

Finding a job is only part of the battle for today's college students. They also have to make sure they're making enough to pay for that education they just completed.

According to The Project on Student Debt, graduates of Minnesota colleges and universities start further behind than most of their counterparts nationally.

The report found that 72 percent of students who graduated in 2006 from schools in Minnesota had to borrow to finance their education and graduated with an average of $23,375 in debt.

Only students in the District of Columbia, New Hampshire, Vermont and Connecticut left school with larger debt loads. Higher average tuition in states appeared to be connected to higher debt, but the study's authors said more research was needed to understand why some states had more debt than others.

"We've never seen this large of a percentage of a generation start with this much debt," said Luke Swarthout, the higher education advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

If a student received the average amount in loans and paid it back over 10 years and with 6.8 percent interest, he or she will have to make monthly payments of about $269.

Swarthout said an annual salary of about $32,000 would be required for a young adult to comfortably make that monthly payment.

Will recruiting drop off?

The job recruiters are still coming to the state's largest campus, at least for now.

Morgan Kinross-Wright, director of the University of Minnesota's undergraduate business career center, hasn't seen changes in companies' recruiting plans, but that could change.

"I think we will probably see a slight drop [in recruitment], but I can't guarantee that," Kinross-Wright said. "I hope we don't. At the undergraduate level, we're a little bit more protected because typically companies don't quit hiring at entry level, but I don't think we've seen the economy at its lowest yet."

She certainly sees students under stress to land that first real job.

"Students are really feeling more pushed to have jobs when they leave school because of student loan debt," Kinross-Wright said. "I absolutely think [the economy] would amplify the other concerns they have."

Jeff Shelman • 612-673-7478 Karlee Weinmann is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.

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