TIME Money

You’ll Never Guess College Students’ Biggest Regret

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Female student worrying about money Image Source—Getty Images/Image Source

It's not what you think

You might think that when people look back on their college years, their biggest regret would be not being more involved socially, choosing the wrong major or partying too much. In reality, the biggest regret college grads face is a much more grown-up one, and it’s one with repercussions that can follow them well into their adult years.

According to a study conducted by Citizens Financial Group, 77% of former college students age 40 and younger regret not doing a better job of planning how to manage their student loan debt.

Student loan debts have ballooned in recent years, even as the demand for higher education has boomed as more companies in nearly every industry require that job applicants have college degrees. Earlier this year, Federal Reserve Bank of New York data showed that Americans collectively owe $1.1 trillion in student loan debt. By comparison, we owe $8.2 trillion in mortgage debt and $659 billion in credit card debt. Each indebted borrower owes nearly $30,000 upon graduation, and many of them are struggling. Citizen’s survey finds that current students carry roughly $25,000 of student debt, while their parents carry an average of $22,000.

Nearly a quarter of former students in Citizen’s survey say they can’t stay current on their debt payments, and almost two-thirds say they’re uncomfortable with their debt load. Almost half say they would have reconsidered going to college entirely if they knew how burdensome their debts would be years or even decades later.

Current students aren’t faring much better: Seven in 10 don’t think they’ll have enough financial acumen to do a good job managing their debt, and more than 80% say they wish they knew more about the long-term impact of carrying this debt — which will take nearly two decades to pay off for many borrowers, according to the survey responses of former students. What’s more, more than a third of former students don’t even have a guess when they’ll have those debts paid.

A lack of communication seems to be a big contributing factor to this situation: Families don’t talk about student loan debt or make a plan to tackle it in advance. Only 15% of former students and just under a quarter of today’s students report having detailed discussions with their parents about how to pay off those debts — 46% of former students say the topic never came up at all.

The heavy debt burden has some wondering if it’s even worth it. While almost 90% of current students think taking out loans to pay for school will be worth the investment, only about two-thirds of former students think so. And while nearly three-quarters of current students think college is necessary no matter what the cost, only 59% of former students feel the same way.

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MONEY road to wealth

Why This Married Couple Lives With Roommates

The Liebhards have $135,000 in student debt and counting. That's led them to an unusual living situation.

Samantha and Travis Liebhard married right after their college graduation in 2012, and quickly moved to Minneapolis so that Travis could start his graduate pharmacy program at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities.

Travis has racked up $135,000 in student loans and expects to incur another $60,000 before graduation. So to save money, this September they moved into a four-bedroom apartment they share with two roommates — single guys who are classmates of Travis’s at pharmacy school.

Samantha complains about dishes in the sink and clothes left on the floor, but the four roommates — plus the two cats in the apartment — get along well. “It’s helping me prepare to have children one day,” she jokes.

To learn more about the Liebhards and their journey on the road to wealth, read Retirement Makeover: Just Starting Out and Overwhelmed by Debt.

MONEY Student Loans

How to Pay Off Student Loans Without Surviving on Ramen

graduate eating ramen on the floor
Datacraft/QxQ images—Alamy

Recent grads: You don't need to live off instant noodles or buy only the cheapest beer. What you really need is a plan.

For some federal student loan borrowers who graduated in May, the time has come: It’s the end of your loan repayment grace period.

If you’re about to start shelling out monthly loan payments, just started or are hoping to aggressively tackle your debt, there are a lot of things to do before you start transferring money.

1. Get a Grip on the Basics

Let’s start with the fundamentals of loan repayment: You owe a certain servicer a minimum amount of money at the same time every month. Make sure you know how all that works. You should have received notification from your student loan servicer, but if you’re not sure who you’re supposed to pay, you can access your federal loan information in the National Student Loan Data System. It’ll tell you who you owe. Private student loans won’t be found in that database, but will likely show up on your credit reports with information about the lender so you can contact them.

Make sure you understand exactly what you’re required to pay each month and your payment due date. Jodi Okun, founder of College Financial Aid Advisors and Discover Student Loans Brand Ambassador, recommends organizing your student loan information in a document and setting up calendar reminders for when the payments are due. Look into automatic payment options with your servicer, as well, but you’ll still want to make sure the payment goes through every month. Forgetting about it could accidentally lead you to miss a payment.

2. Figure Out What You Can Afford

As a new graduate, you may be dealing with more life expenses than you have in the past, or you might still be in search of a job you want. Paying your student loans needs to be a priority, because once you fall behind, it can be very difficult to catch up, and missing loan payments will seriously hurt your credit score. You can see how your student loan payments affect your credit score from month to month by getting two of your scores for free on Credit.com.

If you’re concerned about being able to afford your payments, look into student loan repayment options. Federal loan borrowers are often eligible for income-based repayment or loan forgiveness. The application process might take a few months, said John Collins, managing director for GL Advisor, a student loan debt consultancy. Servicers are dealing with a lot of repayment program applications this time of year, so it could take you 60 to 90 days to enroll, Collins said. In the meantime, make sure you can afford your payments.

3. Make a Plan

You may hate the idea of paying debt off over the course of a decade, racking up interest along the way, but before you decide to throw as much money as possible at your debt, consider your entire financial picture.

“What we’ll recommend to everybody is right out of school, limit your required payment as much as possible,” Collins said. “They need to have an emergency savings fund in case something happens. That should be a goal before you start paying down debt.”

Once you have enough socked away to cover three to six months of expenses, then you can consider upping your loan payments, though you’ll want to make sure you won’t incur penalties and your extra payment goes toward the principal loan balance.

Figure out if you want to consolidate or refinance your student loans and what it would take for you to qualify. There are a few companies offering competitive refinancing rates for private loan borrowers with qualifying credit histories, and that could save you a lot of money in the future.

Federal loan borrowers have some decent options for making payments affordable, and all it requires is a little planning. For example, when you’re gathering documents to prove your income level, make sure you’re providing the most accurate information — your earning situation may have changed drastically since you filed your taxes — so your loan repayment is accurate, Collins said.

“Ultimately I think borrowers have a great opportunity to reduce their debt payments through the federal loan repayment options,” Collins said. “A lot of people recommend eating only Ramen, and live in a studio apartment, and only buy toilet paper if necessary. You should never feel that pressure. Use the many tools that are out there, educate yourself on what they are, and if you need help, there are plenty of resources out there.”

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY College

Good News: There’s a New Way to Get Out from Under Student Debt

Wells Fargo signage
Peter Foley—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Wells Fargo and Discover plan to offer new loan modification programs to help borrowers who are suffering temporary financial hardship.

Two of the biggest private student loan providers have welcome news for struggling grads: Soon, some distressed borrowers will be eligible for lower interest rates and lower monthly payments.

Wells Fargo announced on Wednesday that it would launch a private student loan modification program for customers who are experiencing financial distress, like a job loss.

“Through the program, Wells Fargo private student loan customers experiencing a hardship will have their financial situation reviewed on an individual case-by-case basis to determine eligibility for a short- or long-term loan modification, as appropriate,” Wells Fargo says. “If eligible, Wells Fargo will lower the customer’s interest rate to achieve a student loan payment that is determined to be affordable based on the customer’s income level.”

For eligible borrowers, Wells Fargo plans to decrease interest rates to as low as 1% and lower monthly payments to be about 10% to 15% of each borrower’s income, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Likewise, Discover plans to offer a “repayment assistance program” early next year, though the details have not been finalized, public relations manager Robert Weiss says.

Today, the average college student graduates with $28,400 in debt. Only about 20% of that debt is comprised of private loans, according to The Institute for College Access & Success. The rest is comprised of federal loans. But private student loans are a lot more expensive. The Department of Education found that private student loans have variable interest rates of up to 18%. And private loan providers aren’t required to offer the same relief as federal loans — so private loan borrowers and co-signers who face unexpected hardships are often out of luck.

“With federal loans, you have built-in insurance in case of job loss or disability or death,” says Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Financial Aid Administrators. “These are protections provided to every borrower. Those protections don’t always exist in the private student loan market.”

That’s why these new initiatives are good news, Draeger says. “The fact that they’re willing to look at loan modification is a good thing,” Drager says. “You just have to see the whole picture before you see whether this is good news or if it’s great news.”

Deanne Loonin, director of the National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project, says she is also cautiously optimistic. Other student loan providers, like Sallie Mae, have offered similar relief, and the devil is always in the details, Loonin says.

“It’s a good first step, but as with many things, I want to know more details,” Loonin says. “Which loan you have, how delinquent you are, what your income status is — those kinds of things can end up limiting who can benefit quite a bit.”

Wells Fargo’s head of education financial services, John Rasmussen, told the Washington Post that 600 to 1,000 borrowers should be able to get loan modifications by the end of this year. He said Wells Fargo will also offer help to people who are not yet late on their payments but foresee financial problems that may limit their ability to pay in the near future.

Struggling to repay private student loans? First, read your loan agreement. Private loan providers are not required by law to offer relief, but some do, Loonin says. Your loan agreement should explain if you have any recourse.

If not, call your loan provider, whether it’s Wells Fargo, Discover, or someone else. “It’s definitely worth contacting your creditor and finding out what they offer,” Loonin says. “It may not be totally obvious. Some make modifications on a case-by-case basis.”

Otherwise, consider bankruptcy. Borrowers have been told that it’s nearly impossible to discharge student loan debt in bankruptcy, but that’s not quite true. In fact, 39% of people who tried to get their student debt discharged in bankruptcy received at least partial relief, according to research by Jason Iuliano, Ph.D. candidate in the Politics Department at Princeton University.

But almost no one bothers: Only 0.1% of student loan borrowers in bankruptcy even tried to discharge their student debt. Iuliano estimates that an additional 69,000 debtors would have been eligible for student debt relief. At the very least, if you file bankruptcy, you can wipe out credit card, car loans, and other kinds of debt, which should free up money for you to pay off your student loans.

Finally, know that you’re not alone. “This is still a widespread problem,” Draeger says. “This is a lagging indicator from the recession. People are still having trouble making ends meet.”

Related stories

MONEY Debt

How One Couple Paid Off $147k of Debt (Even While Unemployed)

two birds escaping cage
iStock

Feeling overwhelmed by your debt? Look for inspiration on how to break free from this couple.

Jackie Beck and her husband once “owned” a six figure debt. They’d borrowed for their mortgage, credit cards, education, autos, and home improvement projects. Like most of us do, they’d borrowed over time, barely noticing as their balances grew and interest accrued.

Beck is not alone. The average American borrower owes $225,238 in consumer debt, including $15,263 for credit cards, $147,591 in mortgage debt, $31,646 for student loans, and $30,738 for auto financing.

What set Beck and her partner apart, however, is that they set out to pay off that debt, and after a 10-year journey, they succeeded. Today neither holds a traditional job, they maintain collective annual expenses of less than $12,000, and they’re free to pursue their passions. “Anyone can do it, too,” says Beck. “You don’t have to have debt. Life is a lot easier without it.” (See also: How One Inspiring Saver Found True Love, Shook Off Debt Denial, and Paid Off $123,000)

Getting Started

The Beck’s get-out-of-debt journey began when they decided to tackle their credit card balances. “We were just really sick of being in debt and feeling like all our money went toward the credit cards and interest,” says Beck. Paying off the balance on their cards took a full three years and Beck was unemployed for a lot of that time. “In the beginning, it took us a long time to pay things off,” says Beck. “Then we figured things out and we had more money because we had paid more off. You get better at it and it gets faster.”

She’d been deferring her student loan payments but, once the credit card bills were paid, that freed up some extra cash. “I’d been living for many years on very little money. I never would have been able to start paying on my student loans if I’d still had those credit card payments,” she says.

Beck viewed her student debt as a burden and she couldn’t wait to get rid of it. When finally she landed a job, she was able to speed her repayment schedule. “I continued to live on nothing. I put all my money toward my student loans,” she says. “Then it went super fast.” (See also: How One College Graduate Paid Off $28,000 in Three Years on a $30k Salary)

Maintaining Momentum

Beck’s husband was inspired by her student loan success and together they worked to amp up their efforts. They started paying for most of their purchases in cash, foregoing credit cards altogether. Then they decided to tackle their car loan. “After he saw what I did with my student loan,” says Beck, “he thought it would be nice to live without the car payment.”

Even with successful milestones along the way, the Becks repaid their debt at a measured pace. “We spent a lot of time getting out of the debt we had gotten into,” says Beck. “You don’t have to live like a monk the whole time. We had more money coming in and it didn’t all go toward our debt. We spent some.”

The Becks increased spending somewhat over time but even so, they began to view their mission as preparation for an emergency. In the previous years they’d taken turns being unemployed, had undergone surgeries, paid expensive veterinarian bills for their pets, and even totaled a car. They’d taken out a $10,000 home improvement loan around this time, but even though the loan came with a 0% introductory rate for the first 12 months, they realized their attitude toward borrowing had shifted. They were no longer comfortable taking on new debt. “Gradually we realized that debt is dangerous and that something could go wrong,” says Beck.

Ultimately, the Beck’s took the remaining balance from their savings account and paid off the loan. “Life doesn’t work out perfectly and, when you don’t have debt, it really changes what you’re able to do,” she says.

By the time they were able to start tackling their mortgage, their journey had become about more than just safety. They started to view it a road to freedom. According to Beck, “The fewer expenses you have, the longer you can go without a job.” (See also: The Freedom of a Debt-Free Life)

Rewarding Yourself

For the Becks, freedom was defined by the rewards they chose for themselves after they paid off their mortgage. Beck had wanted to travel to Antarctica since she was eight years old and her husband had his eye on a new car. “After the house was paid off, we spent another year saving up for those things,” says Beck, “and then we went and did them.”

Beck also started developing other streams of income and eventually left her day job. “I created the app Pay Off Debt after I paid off my student loan,” she says. “I thought other people might want to obsess about debt as much as I do.” She also started to blog about her journey at TheDebtMyth.com, and even bought a couple of rental properties, paying for them in cash.

As a couple, they’d also learned to keep their collective expenses low.

“We can live on $12,000 a year if we need to,” says Beck. “We basically have no required bills and we’re not eating ramen,” she laughs. “My husband got laid off a week after I quit my job. Neither of us has a [traditional] job now. People who owe a lot of money don’t do things like that,” says Beck, “because they can’t.”

The Beck’s get-out-of-debt journey has changed the way they think about money altogether. Now it’s common practice for them to make their purchases — even big ones — in cash. They don’t carry debt and they can live their lives freely, without the burden of owing money to anyone. Beck is even thinking about a second trip to her dream destination, Antarctica. “I’m totally going back,” she says.

Because she can.

Read more articles from Wise Bread:

How One College Graduate Paid Off $28,000 in Three Years on a $30K Salary
How One Young Entrepreneur Paid Off $40,000 in Student Debt By Age 24
Our Worst Financial Mistakes and What You Can Learn From Them

MONEY Kids and Money

4 Costly Money Mistakes You’re Making With Your Kids

parents cheering softball players
Yellow Dog Productions—Getty Images

Help your kids become financially literate.

When you’re a parent, it’s easy to get caught up in day-to-day money issues: Which brand of milk is a better value? Is Old Navy having a school uniform sale? How much lunch money is left in the kids’ accounts? But parenting is ultimately about the long view, with the goal of raising capable, self-sufficient adults. Dealing with daily details, we sometimes neglect important money issues that can have a huge impact on our kids — and on our finances — as they prepare for college and adult life.

The mistake: Not talking enough about money

Too many parents don’t talk about money with their kids at all. Others skirt topics they don’t know much about, like investing and debt. Parents are the main source of money information for children, but 74% of parents are reluctant to discuss family finances with their kids, according to the 2014 T. Rowe Price Parents, Kids, and Money Survey. That’s too bad, because ignorance about money can set your kids up to make bad decisions — and eventually pass those bad habits on to your grandkids.

The solution: Make financial literacy a family value

In her book, Do I Look Like an ATM?: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Financially Responsible African American Children, Sabrina Lamb details “the business of your family household.” Lamb, founder and CEO of WorldofMoney.org, says all families should work together on five financial topics: learning, earning, saving, investing, and donating time or funds to causes you value. She recommends a daily diet of business news, occasional meetings between the kids, your banker, and other financial advisors, and support of your older kids’ entrepreneurial goals.

The mistake: Believing in the “Scholarship Fairy”

A lot of parents pin their hopes on pixie dust when it comes to funding their kids’ college educations. Eight in 10 parents think their kids will get scholarships. In the real world, less than one in 10 U.S. students receive private-sector scholarship money — an average of $2,000 apiece, according to FinAid.org.

Even more unrealistic is the myth that great grades and high test scores will lead to a full scholarship. The truth, per scholarship portal ScholarshipExperts.com, is there are many more 4.0-GPA students than there are full-tuition awards, and only one-third of one percent (0.3%) of all U.S. college students earn a full-ride scholarship each year. The time to learn this hard truth is now, not when college acceptance letters start arriving.

The solution: Save something now (or accept that you can’t)

There’s a considerable body of literature out there on the merits of 529s, trusts, and other college savings options. Don’t let the details distract you from the real issue, which is that if you want to help finance your child’s higher education, you must save regularly, starting now.

If there’s no money to save, be honest with your kids about it. You can start educating them about ways to finance college through loans and cut costs with community college transfer credit and placement tests. It’s perfectly acceptable to expect your kids to take responsibility for their own higher learning as long as you prepare them properly to face that reality.

The mistake: “Investing” in extracurricular activities

Everyone’s heard about overscheduled kids with too many after-school activities. Not as much is said about the huge dent extracurriculars can put in your budget — hundreds or thousands of dollars each year for lessons, league fees, uniforms, and more. If you’re sacrificing because you think these activities will pay off when your child gets an athletic scholarship, remember that the Scholarship Fairy is rarely seen. The odds of any particular student getting even a small athletic scholarship at a Division 1 school aren’t significantly better than the odds of a student getting a full-ride academic scholarship.

The solution: Treat extracurricular activities as extras

If your child loves soccer, piano, or hip-hop and you have the time and money to spare, that’s ideal. But if it’s a choice between paying for extras and saving for college, save for college. Find cheaper after-school options for now, and don’t apologize for making that decision.

The mistake: Not teaching your kids to negotiate

There’s a big distinction between a child who’s been taught how to speak up when appropriate and one who’s been trained to be passive in the face of authority. The kids who know how to negotiate tend to earn more money as adults, even when they’re doing the same jobs as those who keep quiet. Salary.com found last year that workers who negotiated a raise every three years earned a million more dollars over the course of their careers than workers who simply accepted whatever they were offered.

The solution: Teach your kids how to deal

Show your kids the ins and outs of deal making through trading games, doing some haggling at garage sales, and expecting them to keep their word. You can find specific age-appropriate suggestions here.

By talking about money and business a little each day, being realistic about college planning, and giving your kids the skills to advocate for themselves, you’ll give them long-term advantages when it comes to understanding and earning money. That’s a valuable legacy to pass from one generation to the next.

TIME Saving & Spending

The Problem With Millennials, In One Staggering Statistic

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KC Photography—Getty Images/Flickr RF

It's almost unbelievably bad

New data about how much debt today’s students are graduating college with just came out. The results are ugly, but that’s not the worst of it.

The Project on Student Debt conducted by The Institute for College Access & Success says the average debt load carried by last year’s crop of four-year nonprofit college grads is $28,400. That number is several hundred dollars higher than last year and roughly ten grand more than the average a decade ago. Roughly seven in 10 students today graduate with debt, a figure that has ticked up in that time period, as well.

This number would likely be even higher if for-profit colleges, which were included in previous tallies but left out this year because many failed to provide data, were included, since their students tend to leave school burdened with debt at a higher rate — 88% indebted with at average of nearly $40,000 in 2012.

That’s bad — but that’s not the problem. You might think these young adults would be worried about paying off a new car’s worth of debt they’d accrued before getting their first full-time job.

Nope.

A new study from Junior Achievement USA and PwC US conducted by Ypulse finds that 24% of millennials think their student loans will be forgiven.

“It’s a scary statistic,” Junior Achievement president Jack Kosakowski tells CNBC. The survey doesn’t explore why roughly a quarter of young people have such an optimistic — and for the majority, unrealistic — expectation.

In many cases, the payments they expect to be forgiven are significant. “Loan payments are also rising, taking a significant chunk out of Millennials’ pay checks when it comes time to pay up post-graduation,” the report accompanying the survey says. “One-third of those with student loans are shelling out over $300 per month and five percent are actually paying more than $1,000 per month.”

Although 60% of respondents to the PwC/JA survey say financial aid is a consideration in their school choice, the survey also finds that today’s high school seniors are relying on an average of just over $8,200 in contributions from their parents and more than $6,600 in student loans to help fund their first year’s tuition. Their average contribution from savings or earnings: less than $1,400. (These students also spent almost $200 of their own money, on average, on back-to-school shopping. School supplies, followed by clothes, were the most common purchases.)

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MONEY College

Average College Grad Now Leaves School With $28,400 in Debt

man overboard waving arms in the air for help
Gary John Norman—Getty Images

A new report from the Project on Student Debt shows that many recent grads are drowning in student loans, but also offers advice for avoiding this destiny.

Student debt has hit another record—with the typical 2013 college grad who borrowed commencing post-collegiate life with loan bills totaling $28,400, according to a Project on Student Debt report released Thursday.

That number is up 2% over the class of 2012, who owed $27,850.

Not all the news was so grim: a new College Board study of financial aid also released Thursday indicated that the total amount of undergraduate federal student loans fell by about 7% in 2014, while enrollment only fell about 1%.

But several debt experts warned against celebrating this as a herald to the end to the student debt crisis.

The recent decline in federal borrowing may simply reflect parents’ shift to other kinds of borrowing, like home equity loans, noted Lauren Asher, president of The Institute for College Access and Success, which runs the Project on Student Debt.

Also, nearly one-fifth of new graduates’ debt load is made up of private student loans, which charge much higher rates than federal loans and have much less flexible repayment plans, she added.

Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com, attributes the recent dip in borrowing to the economic rebound. But since states continue to stint on funding for public colleges, and since college prices are rising faster than financial aid budgets and incomes, borrowing will likely soon bounce back up, he predicts.

State budget cuts “will continue to shift the burden of paying for college from the government to students and their families. Family income and savings do not increase enough to cover the added cost. This forces students to shift their enrollment to lower-cost colleges and to increase their debt at graduation,” Kantrowitz warns in his own recent analysis of student debt numbers.

The key takeaway for students, says Asher is that students should continue to pursue degrees—for the great advantage they provide in the job market—but should also be making sure to limit their debt loads.

Perhaps the single most important step: choosing a college with a net price you can afford using your family’s savings, earnings, your scholarships and no more than the maximum standard federal student loans: $5,500 a year for freshmen, $7,500 a year for upperclassmen. (Here’s more advice on how to avoid crushing student debt.)

The Project on Student Debt also noted that there were many low-debt schools students could choose from. These tend to have some combination of low tuition and/or generous financial aid. They range from private schools such as Princeton University and Berea, to the public campuses of the City Universities of New York and the California State Universities.

On the other hand, colleges that load students up with debt tend to have high tuition and small financial aid budgets. That list includes public schools such as the University of New Hampshire and private schools like the Ringling College of Art and Design.

You can also search for low-debt colleges using MONEY’s list of the 100 colleges with the lightest debt loads.

This story was updated on Nov. 14 to delete an incorrect description of the rate of borrowing by 2012 college graduates.

TIME Education

The Real Student Debt Problem No One is Talking About

College Student Graduation Debt Loans
Getty Images

Graduate students make up just 14% of university enrollment, but account for nearly 40% of student debt

An Army veteran, Anthony Manfre paid for his associate’s and bachelor’s degrees mostly with his GI Bill benefits, although he also took out $4,000 worth of student loans.

“At the time, I thought that was a lot,” he says. “And now I look back and wish I only owed that much.”

That’s because Manfre went on to graduate school, picking up a master’s degree before setting off on the long road to a doctorate in marriage and family therapy while borrowing to also pay his living expenses. And now he’s $200,000 in debt.

“In the back of my mind I was always thinking, this money is an investment — that later on, when I graduate and get a job, I’ll be able to pay it off,” says Manfre, who earns $61,500 a year working for the Veterans Administration. “But now I don’t think I’m going to get the return I thought I would.”

Much of the concern about ballooning student debt has focused on undergrads taking out steep loans to pay for the rising cost of college. Largely overlooked are a principal source of the problem: graduate students like Manfre, who are less likely to have support from parents or other sources, and who face almost no limits on how much they borrow.

Graduate students now collectively owe as much as 40 percent of the estimated $1.2 trillion in outstanding student debt, according to the New America Foundation, even though they make up only 14 percent of all university enrollment.

“People focus on the undergraduates, because there are more of them and they’re younger and more naïve,” says Joel Best, a professor at the University of Delaware and coauthor of The Student Loan Mess. “They aren’t really paying attention to graduate students, but graduate students are really stacking up substantial student-loan debt.”

This indifference helps graduate programs get away with continually increasing their prices, Best says. “They can charge whatever they want and say to themselves that they don’t need to worry about it, the students can get loans.”

It has also freed lawmakers to raise interest rates on graduate and professional students, who are being charged rates nearly 50% more than those paid by undergrads. In 2012, to save about $1.8 billion a year, Congress also stopped subsidizing the interest that accumulates on federal student loans taken out by graduate students while they’re in school and for six months after they finish. And a proposal to streamline existing federal tax credits would reduce the deductions they will be able to take for educational expenses.

Often past the point at which their parents help them pay for their tuition, room, and board, graduate students borrow an average of nearly three times more per year than undergraduates, according to the College Board. And while the average debt of undergraduates has more than doubled since 1989, according to the Brookings Institution, it has more than quadrupled during that time for graduate students.

This comes at a time when the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the fastest-growing careers through 2022 will require workers to have graduate degrees.

“We might have a philosophical discussion about, ‘Do you need a master’s degree for X, Y, and Z,’ but in a free and open marketplace employers are asking for them,” says Suzanne Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools.

It’s also true that those workers will make more money than people without graduate educations. An employee with a master’s degree earns about 20% more than one with only a bachelor’s degree, while those with professional degrees can make around 55% more, according to BLS calculations.

But not all of them. Teachers, for example, can have a particularly hard time earning enough to pay back their debt. About 16% of U.S. master’s degrees are in education and the median debt for graduates is $50,879, according to the New America Foundation— up from $30,724 a decade ago. The yearly salary for the average public school teacher with a master’s degree is $57,830.

And while enrollment in graduate programs has increased 41 percent since 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the Council of Graduate Schools reports that the pace of applications has stalled — in part because people are put off by the cost.

“We’re going to have graduate enrollment going down in our universities, because people can’t afford to take on that level of debt,” says Neleen Leslie, president of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students and a doctoral student at Florida State University. “There’s a misperception that people who pursue advanced degrees are going to be able to make enough to pay back those loans. That’s not necessarily true.”

Now a new measure to help ease student debt could cause problems for everyone else.

In an executive order issued in June, President Obama expanded a little-known provision called income-based repayment that allows borrowers to limit their monthly federal loan repayments to 10% of their incomes, and forgives any remaining debt after 20 years. That’s down from 15% and 25 years, respectively.

Obama said the change was meant to help undergraduates. “If you got a professional degree like a law degree, you would probably be able to pay it off,” the Harvard Law School grad said when he signed the order. But federal loans account for the largest share of graduate student debt, and some education policy experts worry that it could encourage grad students to borrow even more than they already do.

“Why the hell should you worry about how much you’re borrowing? Borrow a million, you’ll still have to pay off the same amount,” says Best.

The potential benefit for higher-earning graduate students is “a policy accident,” says Jason Delisle, director of the Federal Education Budget Project at the New America Foundation. “And who’s going to figure this out? Probably people with graduate degrees.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

Read next: How A College Grad Paid Off $28,000 in 3 Years on a $30,000 Salary

MONEY Debt

How A College Grad Paid Off $28,000 in 3 Years on a $30,000 Salary

Broken chains
iStock

Think you'll never get out from under those student loan payments? Steal some tips from this college grad who did it in three years.

The average college senior graduated with $29,400 in student debt last year and the number is projected to rise by a staggering 6% per year. Even worse, a full 44% of borrowers aren’t making their payments for one reason or another. Despite the depressing statistics swirling around what’s now been dubbed the current student loan crisis, there are still plenty of college graduates who manage to buckle down, live cheaply, and pay off their debt burdens. (See also: How One Inspiring Saver Found True Love, Shook Off Debt Denial, and Paid Off $123,000)

Take Zina Kumok, for example, who is just one month shy of making her last payment on what was once a $28,000 student loan balance. Through a combination of tenacity and frugal living, Kumok will pay off her debt in just three years — while bringing home an income that’s just slightly higher than what she once owed.

How did she do it?

The Motivation

Like most students today, Kumok didn’t give her loans much thought while she was in school. “It wasn’t until I graduated and had my first job,” she says. “I was making $28,000 per year. It was depressing to think that for the next 10 years I would have this payment that was a large chunk of my income.” Even more motivating, Kumok and her then-boyfriend and now fiancee had started talking about marriage. “I didn’t want to saddle him with my debt. My monthly payment was $350.” (See also: 10 Dark-Side Motivations to Get You Out of Debt)

The Job Switch

Kumok’s newspaper job required frequent night shifts and she was living a three hour distance from her boyfriend. “I wasn’t happy at the newspaper and I wanted to go back to a normal schedule,” she says. “I knew I wanted to switch jobs.”

Kumok was able to land a marketing and communications position in the city where her boyfriend lived and she even received a slight salary bump. (Her current annual income is slightly more than $30,000.) With a little more money coming in and lower expenses now that she wasn’t traveling to see her boyfriend most weekends, Kumok was able to increase her student loan payment by an additional $300 per month. In short, instead of using her excess cash flow to expand her lifestyle, Kumok funneled the extra cash into her loan so she could chip away at her balance month by month. (See also: 6 Simple Steps to Discovering Your True Salary Potential)

Decreased Living Expenses

After their engagement, Kumok and her fiance moved in together. They also took on a boarder. “My rent went down significantly,” she says. “Now I split utilities and rent with two other people. That really made a huge difference. Now half my take-home pay goes toward my loans.” (See also: 7 Unnecessary Household Expenses You Can Cut Today)

Keeping Track

For Kumok, her fairly low income offered motivation to wipe out her debt. “Every month I would go through my statement and I would see how much was going toward interest. It was so much hard earned money and I didn’t have a lot of it,” she says. “When you’re not making a lot, every little bit counts.”

Kumok was further inspired once she was able to boost her monthly payment. “I was finally paying more in principal than in interest,” she says. “I liked seeing my interest decrease each month. I felt like I was throwing less money away.”

Budgeting for the Fun Stuff

Kumok admits she finds it difficult to spend money unnecessarily when she owes so much. Even so, she was able to put money aside for a couple of overseas vacations, proving that debt repayment doesn’t have to be all work and no play. “It was hard for me to relax and have fun,” says Kumok, who was able to take each trip on the cheap. Even so, she says, “I counted my budget every day on those trips. I’m excited to travel on a budget but not feel guilty about it, once my loans are paid off.”

And… What’s Next?

About a year ago, Kumok started saving for retirement. “Once I became eligible for my company’s 401(k), I paid enough to get the match. Now I’ll be boosting that contribution amount.”

She soon won’t owe any money and yet she doesn’t expect that much to change. “I was careful for so long. I don’t want to get back into the frivolous habits I had in college,” she says. “I’m a child of the recession, the stock market crashed when I was in college, and I’m the child of immigrants. There are plenty of horror stories around about people who didn’t save or make careful choices. Those things make it hard for me to take a backseat when it comes to money.”

Being the careful sort, Kumok looks forward to starting her marriage without any debt. “He helps me relax a bit so I hope we’ll learn how to be responsible while still having a balance,” she says.

You can read more about Kumok’s journey on her blog, Debt Free in Three.

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