NEW YORK -- Hardly a day goes by where Ashley Angello doesn’t fret about her student loan debt.
Angello thinks about it at night, when packing tomorrow's lunch means a few saved dollars. And she worries about it the next morning when deciding what to wear to work, since she hasn’t been able to afford any new clothes since starting her job.
“I used to joke when I was in college that I’d be paying off these loans for the rest of my life,” says Angello, 22. She graduated nearly a year ago from Ithaca College, where she majored in communications. “Little did I realize that I actually will be.”
Angello is on the hook for about $120,000. With six-figures in debt, she has little choice but to save every little bit that trickles in. And still, it's a struggle.
Midway through college, Angello wouldn’t have been able to graduate had she not been willing to go into debt. “I needed that loan no matter how much it was going to cost me in order to get my education.”
Like the home buyers who took on outsized mortgages in order to realize the American Dream of home ownership, students like Angello are struggling with piles of educational debt assumed in service of financing a similar goal -- the American Dream of a college education.
“Thirty years ago, college was a wise, modest investment,” says Fabio Rojas, a professor of sociology at Indiana University. He studies the politics of higher education. “Now, it’s a lifetime lock-in, an albatross you can’t escape.”
Like Angello, many recent graduates are straining under the increased weight of such an albatross.
Recently, student loan debt exceeded credit card debt, meaning that Americans now owe more on their student loans than they do their credit cards. By year’s end, student debt is on track to hit the trillion dollar mark.
While Mark Kantrowitz, who publishes the financial aid sites Fastweb.com and FinAid.org, reports that last year’s average graduate walked away with about $25,000 in debt, many juggle significantly more.
“It’s one thing to pursue your dreams, but if you’re borrowing to pursue them, you have to make sure you have a plan to pay them back,” says Kantrowitz, who reports that graduates with large amounts of debt tend to subsequently delay other life cycles -- things like buying a car and getting married, not to mention saving for retirement and eventually financing their own child’s education.
Kantrowitz is particularly alarmed by the number of students overborrowing to pay for an undergraduate degree in fields that historically don’t pay well -- majors, for instance, like theater, religious studies or art history.
But dream schools or ideal occupations aside, Kantrowitz also sees recent graduates encountering a harsh reality once they enter the job market. Specifically, when debt at graduation exceeds their starting salary.
It’s a phenomenon of which Angello is well acquainted.
After graduating from college last May, Angello returned home to her native Rochester, N.Y., where she moved back in with her mother and worked as a server at two local restaurants in order to get by. Her mother works as an administrative assistant.
Angello, a scrupulous saver, finally moved to New York City earlier this year, where she began work as a full-time, paid intern. It pays $12.50 an hour. Her hope is that it might transition into a permanent job -- with benefits.
Currently, the bulk of Angello’s weekly paycheck goes toward splitting the rent with a roommate and a few basic utilities, but not much else. Her mother pitches in where she can, but Angello’s contribution is hardly enough to begin paying down the vast sums of student loan debt. The monthly payments on her private loans, while manageable for now, will only increase when interest rates begin rising again.
So far, while her debt has yet to fundamentally realign the direction of her eventual career path, Angello says that she’s now willing to take any permanent offer that comes her way, so long as it's in her related field, rather than hold out for the possibility of something better coming along.
“My mom has assured me that she’s not going to let me go hungry," explains Angello, during a recent lunch break. Her monthly rent is more than her mother's mortgage. "I guess what I didn’t expect is that it’d be a year later and it’d still be so difficult just to get by.”