Some are consumed with regrets.
Some say they would do it again in a heartbeat.
For this generation of college graduates, it’s the norm to finish school with nearly $30,000 in student loans.
Nationally, seven in 10 go into debt to reach graduation day. In Minnesota, half borrow more than $31,000, according to a study released last week. For some, it’s a lot more.
Typically, the day of reckoning arrives six months after graduation, when the first loan payments come due. Often, it’s tougher than they imagined when they signed on the dotted line as freshmen.
“I went to school thinking, when I was 18, that I was going to be a lawyer when I was 25,” said Courtney Downing, 24, of Anoka. “I guess I never had the full picture of what it’s going to look like with student debt.”
We asked some recent graduates — including a White Bear Lake couple with $196,000 in loans — about what it means to live in the shadow of debt as they start their careers and adult lives.
Cyndy Gavilan-Armenta, 23, St. Paul
Student loans: about $35,000
As a child, Gavilan-Armenta used to notice the way professionals dressed up for work, and she decided that some day she would be one of them.
The first in her family to go to college, she was nervous about taking on debt when she entered Augsburg College. Her scholarships and grants, she discovered, would cover only part of her expenses, but she worried about borrowing money. That changed when she met a professor who inspired her to become a finance major.
“He said ‘not every debt is good, but college debt is beautiful because you’re investing in yourself,’ ” she recalled.
As far as she’s concerned, he was right. Now, after graduating with a double major in finance and business management, she’s working as an accountant. “I make enough for my living expenses and to help out my family and pay back my loans,” she said.
Unlike many of her peers, she admits, she’s not stressed out by $400-a-month loan payments. “I feel like I invested in a good career.”
Courtney Downing, 24, Anoka
Student loans: about $40,000
In her senior year at St. Cloud State University, Downing got an “almost perfect score” on the law school admissions test. It had been her dream since high school. By then, her student loans were weighing on her.
“It finally hit me, once you see $40,000 staring you in the face, you’ve got to make some choices,” she said.
She opted instead to go to work after graduating in May 2014, with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies. But it was tougher than she thought to find something in her field, and she settled for a job as a pharmacy technician.
When her first loan payment ($470 a month) came due, she realized something had to give. She switched to a longer-term repayment plan, cutting her monthly bill in half. “It’s crushing most days,” she said of the debt. And discouraging, even as she applies relentlessly for higher-paying jobs.
“There’s part of me that regrets going to school,” she said. “I regret not taking the financial aid part as seriously as I should have.”
Katherine Hagberg, 23, St. Paul
Student loans: about $30,000
If not for her student loans, Hagberg might be in graduate school now. But after graduating from Beloit College in Wisconsin in 2014, she reconsidered. “I had no money,” she said. “I said, ‘Well, maybe now isn’t the right time.’ ”
Hagberg says she has no regrets about her degree in religious studies. She wanted a liberal arts education, and that’s what she got.
But the number on the loan statement, she acknowledges, can be “pretty scary.”
She started making payments in June, about $100 a month, using an extended repayment plan that’s tied to her income. For the moment, she works in administration at the University of Minnesota. While the pay is modest, she said, it qualifies her for a public service loan forgiveness program, which could leave her free of debt after 10 years.
“I’ll be 33 when I pay it off,” she said. In the meantime, she wonders “how in the world I’m going to get to do those things eventually — maybe buy a house, do some traveling, get a car.” Still, she said, “if I didn’t think it was worth it, I don’t think I would have chosen this path.”
Britney Hayes, 24, Mankato
Student loans: about $35,000
This year, Hayes learned that she qualified for another $18,000 in loans for graduate school. But she turned it down. She figured she already had more than enough debt, and she found another way to pay for grad school.
After earning a bachelor’s degree at Minnesota State University, Mankato, in 2013, Hayes volunteered for AmeriCorps, a community service organization, which allows her to earn an educational grant that she plans to apply to her master’s in counseling and student affairs.
She always knew she’d have to pay for college herself, she said, so borrowing money — along with scholarships and work study — seemed like the way to go. Now, with a young daughter, she’s not so sure.
Looking back, she wishes she had gotten better advice. “I don’t think I would have taken out as much as I did,” she said. “I do believe that an education is worth it. I just don’t think it’s worth as much as the sticker price they put on it.”
See Lee, 24, St. Paul
Student loans: almost $40,000
For Lee, the reality hasn’t hit yet. She graduated in July from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, and she’s still enjoying the six-month grace period.
But she figures she’ll end up paying $300 a month for quite a while. “I hope, by [age] 50, to pay it off,” she said.
Growing up in St. Paul, the daughter of Laotian immigrants, she never took college for granted. But a program called College Possible, for low-income and first-generation students, helped inspire her to get her degree.
Now she works for College Possible, coaching other students through the process, and debating the pursuit of a higher degree. And yes, that would mean taking on more debt. The students she worries about, she said, are those who drop out halfway through, with loans of their own and nothing to show for it. That, she said, “is just sad to see.”
Nick and Rosie Thelen, 28 and 26, White Bear Lake
Student loans: $196,000
Nick Thelen readily admits it’s an eye-popping number. “The first year after I graduated … I was a waiter,” he said. “That is not very much money, let me tell you.”
Both he and his wife graduated from Iowa State University, and he went on for his master’s in counseling in 2012. Now their combined student loan payment is $1,700 a month.
“We both got jobs that are decent, well-paying,” as a chemical dependency counselor and a lab technician, he said. And they’re even managing to send more than the minimum to pay off the loans faster. Even so, “it definitely feels like life is on hold,” he said. “Let’s be realistic. There are people in our age group who are doing better — those people with homes, those people starting families … Sometimes, it feels like we’re just kind of stagnating. But we don’t have a choice.”
Robert Gross, 38, Edina.
Student loans: about $42,000 to $50,000
Gross calls himself a nontraditional student. He worked for years as a tradesman, doing siding and remodeling, and waited until his 30s to get his bachelor’s degree in 2013 at Metropolitan State University. And he’s not quite done amassing student debt. He has another year to go in a master’s program in technical communication at Metro State.
Still, he says he’s gone into debt with his eyes open. He decided that his previous career wasn’t a “sound financial path” in the long run. He has higher hopes for his new field. “Everyone needs help creating websites, social media,” he said.
He paid out of pocket for his associate’s degree at a community college and started borrowing to finish his bachelor’s. “I’ve chosen a path of trying to get through college where I’m not ending up with a house payment and a piece of paper and no job,” he said.
By the time he finishes, he predicts his loans will near $50,000. That may mean he won’t buy a house anytime soon, he said. But “if you want to live in the middle class in this day and age, you have to do this. There is no other choice.”