The gut check over student debt hit Isabelle Cooper even before she got to the University of South Carolina.
Cooper grew up in Irmo, dreaming of the typical college experience. But, while filling out government aid forms, she learned her USC degree would come with about $20,000 in student loan debt.
“I just couldn’t wrap my head around that,” said Cooper, now a 20-year-old rising junior. “I just broke down crying, like, ‘I can’t afford to go to college.’ ”
‘I just couldn’t wrap my head around that. I just broke down crying, like, “I can’t afford to go to college.” ’
Isabelle Cooper, 20-year-old rising junior at USC
Cooper is among the thousands of USC students every year – and millions more across the country – who take out loans to pay for college.
More than half of USC’s graduates leave school with student loan debt. At USC, the average those students owe has risen by more than 58 percent in the past decade.
USC students are not exceptions.
Coastal Carolina leads the state in public college student loan debt. In 2014, almost three of every four Coastal grads – 74 percent – left school with debt, owing a state-high $35,207 on average.
Experts and university officials say better planning before college, more awareness of the gravity of student debt and graduating on time – in four years – are possible solutions to the growing “student debt crisis.”
That crisis has snowballed over the past 20 years as states have passed rising public college costs on to families.
About 43 million Americans owe student loans totaling an estimated $1.3 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Only mortgages account for more consumer debt than student loans.
USC student Cooper, like many others, said she tries to avoid thinking about her debt, dreading the occasional emailed reminder of her current balance.
The business and marketing student has decided to save money by moving back in with her parents at their Irmo home this semester. Knowing loan repayments will follow graduation has pushed her to look harder for internships that might lead to a better-paying job after school.
“It definitely is an incentive,” Cooper said. “I do want to be successful, but there’s also that extra push that you kind of have to be successful to pay that off.”
Over their heads
Some recent USC graduates already are feeling the pain.
Fifty-four percent of USC’s 2014 seniors graduated with debt, averaging $28,233 per borrower, according to the Project on Student Debt’s most recent data.
Those figures are lower than the national average. Nearly 7 in 10 seniors who graduated from four-year schools across the country in 2014 had student loan debt, owing an average of $28,950, data show.
Jordan Hammett, 24, said she graduated the state’s flagship university in May 2014 with more than $100,000 in student debt after four years as a nursing major. The Winston-Salem, N.C., native says the balance has affected her spending – birthday and Christmas money quickly are thrown into repayments – as well as her life trajectory.
She said her $950-a-month loan repayment threw a wrench into her plans to move out of her parents’ house and get married.
“When you see how little the total amount has gone down, it’s very frustrating and disappointing,” Hammett said. “You feel like you put so much into it, and you feel like it hasn’t moved on paper.”
Jackson Gibson, 24, of Fort Mill, said he graduated from USC in December 2014 with about $75,000 in student debt – much of it from private lenders who will not negotiate repayment options or interest rates.
The former hospitality management major, who works as a store manager at a local pizza place, said his repayments have held him back from moving west to pursue career opportunities at resorts.
He and others dealing with student debt say there often is no one helping them navigate the transition to college, explaining what they are getting into with student loans.
“Coming right out of high school, you’re just so jacked to go to college that you’re not thinking about after college and paying it back,” he said.
What’s to blame?
Eboni Nelson, a USC School of Law professor who studies consumer law, said college students generally are financially inexperienced and ill-prepared for such a sophisticated transaction.
“There’s so much information in (the loan agreement) that it can be daunting,” Nelson said. “And you know you have to have the loan, so I think it’s common that a lot of people sign those promissory notes without reading them. And if they do read them, a lot of times it’s just so complicated that they don’t understand.”
USC President Harris Pastides says education about student loan debt should start with parents and high schools, but that colleges can play a part.
Pastides deflects blame for rising student debt from years of tuition increases, saying students who take too long to graduate – often because of changing majors – also play a major part.
At orientation and during convocation, USC has tried to hammer home the importance of graduating on time or early, Pastides said. School officials will focus on that even more this year, he added.
“So we’re going to tighten up with out student body, especially with our incoming students this year, and tell them: ‘Freshman year is for experimenting academically. But when you come back sophomore year, you need to have a major and, unless things go off the rails, stick with it.’ ”
What can be done?
Experts agree the key to avoiding student debt starts in high school and even before.
Kristina Ellis, author of two books on avoiding student debt, said loans should be used as a last resort.
Loans should follow years of saving for college, aggressively applying for scholarships and fee waivers, taking dual-enrollment courses and looking for part-time jobs and other opportunities that can help cut down the amount owed, she said.
Students also should look hard at their major, possible career paths and ability to repay loans, she said.
If loans are absolutely necessary, Ellis cautioned against borrowing any more than necessary. She recommends accepting all government-sponsored loans available before seeking private options.
“A lot of students aren’t aware about all of this,” Ellis said. “That’s a lot to put on somebody who is 17 or 18 years old. They’re being asked to sign paperwork that could affect them for 25 to 30 years to come, when a lot of them don’t even have their own bank account.”
Recent graduates, including USC’s Gibson, sometimes find themselves wishing they could advise their younger selves before it was too late.
“I want to go back and make all these changes, but you just can’t do it,” Gibson said. “It’s kind of a hopeless feeling, knowing that I could have made all these changes with just a couple of hours of education.”
Student debt in SC
Average debt of 2014 public college graduates:
The Citadel: $29,701
Coastal Carolina: $35,207
College of Charleston: $25,644
Francis Marion: $28,979
National average: $28,950
How many SC grads owe?
Proportion of 2014 graduates with student debt
The Citadel: 65 percent.
Clemson: 49 percent
Coastal Carolina: 78 percent
College of Charleston: 52 percent
Francis Marion: 61 percent
USC-Aiken: 67 percent
USC-Columbia: 54 percent
USC-Upstate: 67 percent
Winthrop: 74 percent
National average: 69 percent
SOURCE: Project on Student Debt