Degree of Debt: College graduates struggling to pay back student loan debt

Degree of Debt: College graduates struggling to pay back student loan debt

SOUTH MISSISSIPPI (WLOX) - With roughly $1.3 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, financial analysts are calling it a student loan crisis for millions of Americans. According to Wallet Hub, our state has one of the highest percentages of student loan balances that are past due or in default.

That's why many are wanting change in the way colleges do business, even holding states accountable for defunding higher education and leaving students with unaffordable tuition rates.

We talked with two South Mississippi teachers who said they are barely able to put anything toward their student loans. They have a warning for future college students and parents.

Chase Chatfield and Angela Townsend said being a teacher has been a rewarding experience. 
They are able to make money doing what they love, but the cost of getting the job they enjoy is something that isn't such an enjoyable subject.

"It's stress all the time, because I was raised to pay back debts. Parents taught me that. It's what I've learned in church, but at the same time, it's like what do I do? Do I give the government a couple thousand dollars a month and not pay the power bill, or do I tell my children, 'Hey, you can't drive even though you have your license, because I have to pay off this debt that I have,'" Chatfield said.

"It's just like a big weight that I carry around that I owe all that, and if you were to ever go bankrupt. If you were ever to do anything like that, they will not take the student loans off no matter what," said Townsend.

Chatfield has his master's degree from the University of Phoenix and is $100,000 in debt. After one bachelor's degree in business and difficulty getting a job, Townsend went back to school a second time to get her certificate in elementary education from the University of Texas at El Paso. She has close to $37,000 in student loans.

Between supporting their families and paying household bills, very little, if anything at all, is left at the end of the month to pay back hundreds of dollars in a student loan payment.

"It almost cost us from getting our house. We had to do a lot of digging and trying, because it's debt to income ratio when you get a house. My student loan is more than what it was, so I had to prove that I could not make it, that I was deferred or forbearanced for a year," Townsend explained.

"The old car that I have still works. Basically, all the repairs are up to date. I rent from a friend, so everything works and the landlord situation is awesome. My wife does work, so the stress from that is lifted," Chatfield said.

According to Ben Miller, with the Center for American Progress, a think tank that does research on policy issues, the cost of college has grown well past family incomes. Miller said a big problem is states are spending far less on higher education than 20 or 30 years ago.

"Nowadays, it's about 50/50 and you get some places, like in the northeast, where it's actually like 80/20 student to state," Miller said.

He said as states have spent less money on higher education the difference has been made up on the backs of students. Miller suggests legal changes to help fix the problem.

"We need something that tells states they can't keep shirking their responsibility and they have to invest in public higher education right now. What's happening is the federal government keeps trying to bail out states by increasing federal student loans and federal grant aid. That's not sustainable over the long run. I think schools have to have some skin in the game that says, if you produce a lot of defaulters and non-repayers, you have to share in the risk of that," Miller said.

Looking back, Townsend and Chatfield said they would have done things differently.

"Maybe not borrowed as much as I did, because I did borrow extra for living expenses," Townsend said.

"I would have to go back really far and hit high school and make good grades, because through good grades in high school, I would've been able to qualify for scholarships," said Chatfield.

Chase's son and future college student Caleb Hardy is already learning from his father's decisions. He said he will do whatever he can to avoid taking out student loans.

"I don't want to feel like I have to just start paying for things after I just went through college," Hardy said. "Living on your own and then they're like, 'Oh, well you're done with college. You're done paying for your classes, now here's something you have to pay for the rest of your life.'"

According to the Department of Education, of Mississippi's top three major universities, the University of Mississippi had the lowest number of borrowers in default from 2010 to 2012.

The Center for American Progress said the three major problems with the student loan market is borrowers who attend college and don't graduate, students who attend private, for-profit universities, like ITT Technical Institute or University of Phoenix, and lastly, graduate students who start off with affordable student loans from undergraduate degree but then are saddled with a graduate loan debt, which can often triple or quadruple their student loan debt.

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