Student loans leave lasting pain

A graduation cap with money symbolizes student loans

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Tess Vigeland: Credit is tight for almost everything these days. Getting money for a house, a car, a business? Even with a good credit score it's something of a crapshoot.

Student loans are the one bright spot. You can still get them and they're usually considered a smart investment in future earnings. But with the economy in turmoil, default rates are up. Student lender Sallie Mae says 9.4 percent of borrowers fell behind on payments in the third quarter last year, so college students should think carefully about how much debt they take on.

Susan Goodman reports from Annapolis, Maryland.


Susan Goodman: Many students don't realize just how much it costs to pay off a loan over time with interest. Take Meredith Lathbury. Ten years ago she borrowed $90,000 for law school.

Meredith Lathbury: I was just calculating how much I've paid so far. It's about $86,000. However my loan is for a term of 30 years.

Which means she'll will be almost 60 years old when she makes the final payment. Lathbury currently works as a lawyer for a conservation group on the Chesapeake Bay. She doesn't regret her decision to work for a non-profit, but didn't realize how deeply her loan would affect her life.

Lathbury: You have this huge monthly expense that you cannot miss, but then they say it's good debt because it's student loans. Well, it doesn't feel that good, frankly.

Two-thirds of college students do take out loans and graduate with an average debt of $20,000. But is this "good debt?" Janet Bodnar of Kiplinger's magazine says that depends. Bodnar advises doing the math before taking out a loan.

Janet Bodnar: There are some really neat calculators on line that you can use. You can plug in what you expect your starting salary to be based on the field that you want to go into. You can say, "Gee, wow, that's too much. I'm not going to be able to afford to pay back the loans."

An affordable payment, Bodnar says, is about 8 percent of your income.

Bodnar: It seems like people can really handle that, but once it goes up from that, it might be a little bit difficult.

But difficult could become impossible given the current economy. Robert Shireman is with the Project on Student Debt.

Robert Shireman: Someone who decided six months ago "I should train to be an investment banker and get a job at Lehman Brothers" today would probably discover that the money they put into that education they may have trouble repaying that loan right now.

That may come as a rude awakening for some, as heard on this YouTube spoof.

[Clip from "Student Loans - The Curse of Education"]: This is an automated reminder from your student loan company. Your monthly payment of $1,600 begins immediately. Your carefree days are over."

And unlike some other types of debt, student loans can't be erased in bankruptcy court, which means repaying them is as certain as death and taxes.

From Annapolis, Maryland, I'm Susan Goodman for Marketplace Money.

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