Indebted college grads working to bypass default settings

2013-06-09T00:00:00Z 2013-06-11T15:15:39Z Indebted college grads working to bypass default settingsBill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328 nwitimes.com
June 09, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Newly minted college alumni have happily graduated from their textbooks and cares about rising student loan interest rates.

Now they need only fret about repaying the student loans that could haunt them for decades.

"Not a day goes by when I don't wonder if I will find employment and be able to live on my own while paying off my loans," Caitlin Perry, of Steger, said only weeks after graduating from Illinois State University with a bachelor's degree in English and more than $26,000 to repay.

Perry said she rarely thought about that figure, which is about the national average for such debt, when she was a student except for the annual ritual of filling out a FAFSA -- Free Application for Federal Student Aid -- form.

"It was easy to just forget about the loans. Even now, there is that six-month grace period, where I don't have to pay anything, but the large amount of debt I'm in is looming over my head," Perry said. "Now that the time for me to start paying on my loans is approaching, finding a job is really stressful,"

Katelin Clark, of Lansing, who graduated a year ago and is now living and working in Indianapolis, is well into the grind.

She owes about $27,000, an amount roughly equal to her current annual salary from an early intervention service for children with developmental delays.

"That's a scary thought," Clark said.

Student debt was the furthest thing from her 18-year-old mind when Butler University helped her assemble a financial aid package to begin studies for her degree in sociology.

"(Borrowing) was the only way I could have gone there," Clark said. "I'm working through all the different repayment plans and every month, I cut my spending down and big purchases are on hold so that I can pay this back."

David Fevig, Valparaiso University's assistant vice president of enrollment management who oversees financial aid, said nearly 66 percent of their students take out loans.

"You know how 17-year-olds or 18-year-olds are," Fevig said. "They are like, sure, whatever they have to do to get in. The parents are generally more concerned because in many cases its the parents who are paying even though the loans are in the students' names."

Fevig said they try to meet with all students about the situation.

"We really work with law students because they tend to have the bigger debt. We tell them don't live like a lawyer now if you want to avoid living like a student later," he said.

Because of that, he said VU gets "serious students," noting their default rate is about one-third the national average.

The U.S. Department of Education reported last fall that an overall average of 13.8 percent students have defaulted on loan payments in the last three years. That includes a nearly 23 percent rate for students of for-profit institutions, 11 percent for public institutions and 7.5 percent for private nonprofit institutions.

Mary Hatton, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office, said they have collected more than $1 million from people who defaulted on student loans and objected to former students attempting to avoid paying their loans through bankruptcy in the past decade.

Gwen Zehner, of Griffith, an intern this summer for the Lake County Board of Commissioners, was lucky enough to avoid painful debt during her undergraduate years thanks to a sports scholarship and financial help from her family.

But graduate school is looming, and she must take the plunge. She is shopping around for something in the $10,000-to-$12,000 range.

"I would like to go for public administration or public relations, before I go to law school. And after law school, my debt will probably be upwards to $100,000," Zehner said.

"I want that education, but I'm still a little hesitant. It is harder to get a job in that field because there are a ton of lawyers out there."

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