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Economic Anxiety Index®

College debt isn’t just for the young

Amy Scott Oct 29, 2015
Economic Anxiety Index®

College debt isn’t just for the young

Amy Scott Oct 29, 2015

When Tanya McAnear opened the door at her small boutique in San Diego’s South Park district on a recent morning, she was greeted by a skull in a wedding veil on display for Halloween. The shop, Bad Madge & Company, sells an eclectic mix of midcentury furniture and vintage fashion.

“Right now I have these red velvet swag lamps from the ’70s, and they look directly out of the Playboy mansion,” McAnear said. “They’re just amazing.”

McAnear isn’t just a small business owner. She also produces fashion shows and teaches fashion merchandising at the college level. For a long time she did that with just an associate’s degree. But back in 2008, when the economy was in the dumps, her profession was changing, too.

“A lot of the fashion colleges were requiring a bachelor’s degree,” she recalled.

So, at the age of 41, McAnear joined a growing crowd of adults who went back to school during the recession. She had to work, so she signed up for an online program at Academy of Art University, a for-profit college based in San Francisco. At about $2,400 per course, she said, it was pricey. Like most students, she needed loans.

“I didn’t really think about the debt,” McAnear said. “I felt like with my degree, I could continue teaching, maybe even teach at other colleges, continue having my own business and having several streams of income.” 

That’s not how it worked out. Just as McAnear was about to finish her degree, the small fashion college where she taught shut down. Her income dropped by two-thirds. As she searched for work, she found that many schools were now requiring master’s degrees. Today, at 48, she’s teaching a few classes and making a small income from her store, and barely making a dent in her $65,000 student loan balance.

“I’m scared for my retirement,” she said. “Every night I go to bed and go, ‘What am I going to have when I’m in my 70s?’”

McAnear has a lot of company. A new Marketplace-Edison Research Poll found that almost 40 percent of people paying off student loans said the education wasn’t worth the debt. The regret can be greater for those who have less time to pay it off. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, two-thirds of U.S. student loan debt is held by people over age 30.

Going back to school in mid-career can be a really smart move, said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

“When you combine a mid-career degree with somebody who’s got 20 to 25 years of work experience and know-how about how to move around the labor market, how to get the most out of their degree, the effects can be very powerful,” he said. “Now, of course, the effect lasts for fewer years, because you’re older.”

Adding a lot of debt to the equation makes it even more complicated. The important thing, Carnevale said, is to do the math first.

“The older you are, from an economic perspective, you must be a lot more careful in making the choices,” he said. “When you hit 30 grand, which is about the average for debt for a B.A., you need to pause and reconsider and ask yourself if this is really the right thing to do.”

Kim Norris gave that question a lot of thought. She’s 48 and lives in Jacksonville, Florida. About 10 years ago, Norris realized she needed an associate’s degree to advance in the medical billing and coding field. 

“I was really, very concerned about the cost of it, but I felt like the end would justify the means,” Norris said. She recalled thinking: “Once I graduate, I’ll be able to pay my loans back without a problem.”

But when she did graduate from the University of Phoenix in 2008, “people were getting laid off left and right,” she said. “To have that competitive edge, you needed to have something else under your belt.”

So she went back for a bachelor’s. When that turned out not to be enough of an edge, she got an MBA.

“I’m close to $80,000 in school loans, and I’ve been struggling, trying to find work that will allow me to pay bills and to pay those loans back,” Norris said.

As it turns out, the credentials she’s falling back on are the medical billing and coding certificates she got for a few thousand dollars.

Norris and McAnear both said they got a good education, but that it wasn’t worth the price.

They may just need to wait for the economy to get a little stronger, said Carnevale. As the labor market continues to improve, the jobs employers are adding are jobs that require degrees, he said.

“Hopefully, a lot of people who made bad bets several years ago — those bets will begin to pay off,” he said. 


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