How to survive severe student loan debt

Student debt affects nearly 15 million Americans under the age of 30.

Debt has a new face -- it's very young and very worried. One report out just this week estimates that the college class of 2013 will graduate owing an average of more than $35,000 in federal, state and private loans.

And a recent study from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says student debt could have a big impact on the broader economy -- by limiting borrowers' willingness to take on new financial obligations like buying a car or a house, or starting a small business.

Those are the numbers -- now let's get down to emotions. Having to pay back tens of thousands of dollars after graduation can be downright scary. That's why the nonprofit organization American Student Assistance has launched a campaign challenging young people to "Face The Red," and empowering them to take control of their debt on a practical, day-to-day level. According to ASA, student debt affects nearly 15 million Americans under the age of 30. As part of their campaign, ASA has released a new mock horror short film that acknowledges how frightening debt can be (watch the video in the sidebar link above).

Betsy Mayotte is director of regulatory compliance at ASA and joined us to offer advice to young people needing help with their student loan debt.

"It's always the same story -- it's that I want to pay, but here's my situation and how do I handle it?" says Mayotte. "I always go back to just always pick up the phone and call and find out what options are available to you. And don't just think about the next couple months. Try to come up with a plan -- such as income-based repayment or public-service loan forgiveness, or graduated repayment -- that will actually work with you over the next 10 years and grow with your lifestyle."

Mayotte says there are too many variables to determine how much debt a student should carry when paying for their education, but a lot of people say you should look at the average starting salary for the career you're studying for and try not to borrow more than what that amount is.

We received a ton of letters with student debt questions and Mayotte offered advice on these questions:

  • Sasha, a senior at Emerson College and intern at ASA, wants to start making extra payments to her student loans. She has federal and private loans of varying interest rates and wants to know how to decide which loans to make extra payments on.
  • Dylan, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, has been receiving help from family members to pay his bills while he finishes up school. He wants to know how to start budgeting for expenses he isn't currently paying for and what bills he should start paying off once he gets a full-time job.
  • Nicole, a paralegal who's the first person in her family to graduate from college, is in a difficult spot financially. She has $250,000 in student debt and a medical issue that doesn't allow her to really save. She wants advice on how to save when she has no money -- and how she can manage her debt.

Click play on the audio player above to listen to Mayotte's advice for these listeners.


Across the country, an average 16.2 percent of consumers owe some amount of student debt. But if you look at the state level, the country is split along the Mason–Dixon line, with a higher percentage of the population owing money in northern states than southern states.

Overall, Hawaii claims the lowest share of consumers with student debt, just 12 percent. While a whopping 25 percent of the population in Washington, D.C. owes student loan money. Take a look at the map below and find out more data on student debt by clicking here.

 

About the author

In more than 20 years in public radio, Barbara Bogaev has served as the longtime guest host of NPR’s flagship program Fresh Air with Terry Gross, as well as host of APM’s news and culture magazine, Weekend America and the weekly national documentary series, Soundprint.

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