The cost of college: How student debt is impacting graduates

In the past, when students graduated from college the future seemed bright.

But now, for most students that future is bogged down by thousands of dollars of student debt.

“The task seems daunting at best and I feel like I won’t be able to move forward with moving out or other life goals until these loans are paid off,” said Roy Quesenberry, a graduate of Liberty University. “Which, unless I am able to pay more than the monthly payments, will still be about 15 years from now.”

Quesenberry is currently a 911 dispatcher for James City County.

Quesenberry is just one of the many in the past decade to graduate from college and find themselves stuck because of the student debt attached to their names. Just in the past decade, the amount of students taking on educational debt has nearly tripled, said Brian V. Lee, an attorney.

But that doesn’t mean students fresh out of college, or even during college, understand the amount of money they’re committing to repay.

“I think I was aware of the cost of my loans but I wasn’t aware of how long and how much of an impact it would have on being able to make a life for myself,” Quesenberry said.

In 2018, Virginia passed Federal Student Loan Information Act which requires public universities to provide annual notices to students about the amount of loans they’re accruing. It’s designed to help students understand just what they’re going to have to repay, said Joe Dobrota, director of financial aid at William & Mary.

But even with those notices, Lee said students still might not understand what’re they’re signing up for.

“It’s tough because there are 17- and 18-year-olds who have never had debt in their life, who wouldn’t even qualify for credit card, who are now taking on thousands of dollars of debt,” Lee said.

Lee specializes in bankruptcy and said he gets calls everyday in regards to students not being able to repay their loans. For Quesenberry, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology, the debt has made it difficult to move out of his parents’ house at 29 years old.

Which is something Lee said is happening more frequently than ever before.

In Virginia, the average student graduates with $32,994 in loans, according to a 2017 study from The Institute for College Access and Success. And as tuition increases over the years, so will student debt, Lee said.

But it seems students are still willing to attach themselves with debt for the sake of a degree.

“I think that gets to the idea of education being the seed for the future,” Dobrota said. “The idea is that debt that will give you higher earning in the future, with education debt if you need to borrow $10,000 over a lifetime you’ll make that up with the degree.”

But for individuals like Quesenberry who have gone into public service positions, the cost isn’t necessarily in correlation to their income.

Quesenberry acknowledges his degree got him farther than he would be without it, but now there is one question that lingers over most graduates’ heads: Is it far enough?

“The stress and anxiety of student loan debt has taken a toll on my mental and physical health,” he said. “Which I know is going to happen with any kind of debt, but with student loan debt, if you are unable to find a job in your field of study, it seems like a lost battle.”

At William & Mary, the financial aid department works with students to make them aware of the different repayment options. One that is popular is a payment plan based on income, Dobrota said, which is what Quesenberry does to repay his loans.

On average, that makes his payments around $700 a month. Lee said this isn’t uncommon among college graduates and the rising number of student debt will most likely cause unforeseen issues in the national economy, such as in the housing market.

But on the individual level, it’s already having an impact.

“I feel that people in my position, who aren’t married, have one income, and don’t have any plans to get married, are very much hindered from going out and doing the things they’d like to do,” Quesenberry said.

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.