Ah, the summer after graduation. With rented caps and gowns returned, most graduates are hitting the pavement to look for work, or trying to ace that final internship in the hopes that they'll be hired on. But even for those who find employment, there likely remains nagging bit of unfinished business: student loans.
According to figures from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 37 million Americans hold student loan debt. The total amount of student loan debt in the United States is estimated to be between $867 billion and $1 trillion dollars, and default rates for student loans continue to rise. In 2012, the majority of unemployed Americans had at least some college education—the first time in our nation's history this has occurred. On Tuesday, Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate announced they had reached an agreement on a bill to continue subsidizing student loans, keeping interest rates at 3.4 percent rather than letting them rise to 6.8 percent.
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We asked Yahoo News readers to tell us their experiences with student loan debt. Over 600 graduates (and not-quite graduates) of all ages emailed to share their stories. We'll be sharing more of their stories in the next week over at our Tumblr.
Overwhelmingly, Yahoo News readers told us they felt burdened by their debt. "We do not like debt," wrote Katelyn Fagan, who graduated from Brigham Young University in 2011. She and her husband have a combined student loan debt of just under $70,000. Fagan tried to work while in college, but wanted to focus on her academics. "Maybe I could have sought out other employment options (and I sometimes did) but school was my top priority."
"Student loans have basically ruined my life," says Tanya Carter, who graduated from the University of Toledo in 2008. She went to community college for two years before transferring, and attended classes part-time so she could also work. When Carter maxed out on federal loans, she turned to private loans to finish her degree. As a result of all that debt, she writes: "I never see myself owning a home, vehicle, or maybe not even getting married."
The need to delay starting a family because of financial worries was a common concern. Lauren Dollard graduated from Fordham University in 2008 with $157,000 in debt, including interest. "My boyfriend won't marry me because of my debt," she says. "He doesn't want it attached to his name (I know, this could also be an excuse)." She said she would trade her "fancy private school education" in a heartbeat to live "as an independent adult."
April Flores graduated from San Diego State in 2008 with $80,000 in private loans and $30,000 in subsidized loans. "It is going to be hard to buy a house and start a family with our debt," she writes. "We joke and say that our baby is Sallie Mae, but it is true! Education is invaluable, but I was not wise in my early 20s and did not make the right decisions when it came to my private loans."
Flores was far from alone in bemoaning her failure to understand the implications of those promissory notes. Salvatore Aiello graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2009 with $68,000 in debt. "I blame ignorance in my pursuit of loans; my high school did a terrible job explaining our options when it came to financial aid," he told us. "They made it seem that if I wasn't rich or beyond poverty I would not have been able to go to college." Aiello followed up with a second email—he and his girlfriend are now expecting their first child. They are, in his words, "very excited at the unexpected blessing but terrified."
Logan Canale attended Queens University in Charlotte, N.C.—and started feeling the pain of loans before her graduation in 2009. One borrower came after her for nonpayment of loans while she was still enrolled and taking classes.
"My private college was way too expensive for what it was worth," Canale writes. "I just feel like I have been beaten by the system and taken advantage of. Who is making money off my education? Because it is not me."
Amber Riffey graduated from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in 2005, and says she was simply too naive: "I wish that schools and student loan officers [would] sit down and actually explain how Sallie Mae works [...] I was just told how much I owe SMWC and 'sign here on the dotted line so we can get you signed up for next semester's classes.'"
"If I had the knowledge then that I do now, I would have paid as I went (yes, it would have most definitely taken longer but at least I would have graduated with my diploma and debt free)," says Riffey.
Although Bobbi Carlin left school before receiving a degree, she attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Southeast Community College. "Honestly, I let my parents [handle loans] for me, and when I left school, before graduating, I had no idea that I had more than one loan," says Carlin. "I paid that loan off, and discovered later there was another." She's worked to pay off all of her loans, and now has a little less than $600 in outstanding loan debt.
While students are often told that if one school isn't a good fit for them, they should transfer to another, that can add years to their education—which usually means added debt as well. Eric DeRise went to multiple universities before graduating from University of Connecticut in 2008. DeRise says he understood the details of his mounting student loan debt, but he had no grasp of what it would actually mean for his post-graduation life. "Believe me, I understood that I'd have to pay back the loans 6 months after I graduated, and I understood the strict consequences of not paying them back," he writes. "But do you think of any of that when you're 18-20 years old?" DeRise is making less than $40,000 a year at a nonprofit in Salt Point, N.Y., and he worries about how he will cover his monthly payment if interest rates rise.
[Related: Private student loans 101]
But not everybody had sympathy for graduates who complain about their debt load. Robbin S. is an older graduate—she finished her degree in business from the University of Phoenix in 2003, when she was 46. She still owes $17,500 in loans. "I'm really sick of the whiny babies complaining about their $100,000 of student loan debt and how they will never be able to pay it off," she writes. "Who in their right mind thinks that $100,000 of student loan debt (with a BS in a worthless field) is reasonable?"
For other graduates, who pursued a degree when they found themselves unable to compete in a changing workforce, the accumulated loans could be salt in the wound.
Kim Shannon of Eaton Rapids, Mich., received an associates degree in human resources management in 2010. Several years later, she is still looking for work, and the loans she placed in deferment and forbearance are entering repayment. "I am no longer optimistic about the future. After so many rejections, I have all but given up my job search," says Shannon. "If I could go back and change things, I would. I would have gone someplace where I could learn a more marketable skill, like driving a forklift. I thought I would be happy to finally get a degree, but I'm not."
And then there are those parents who find themselves responsible for paying off loans they co-signed with their children. Karen DeSimone of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., is on the hook for $17,000 in loans she co-signed for her son. "We did everything we could do to get my son started," she writes. "Now we both have the loan debt."
We'll end on an optimistic note: Some Yahoo News readers felt positive about their debt, despite the challenges it posed.
Frank Mendoza of Miami, Fla., graduated from Florida International University in 2010. "I still feel that getting my degree was an achievement worthy of pride. I am, after all, the first male in my family to have a college education," writes Mendoza. "It comforts me to know that I am not the only one in this type of rough financial situation and that even this shall pass."