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Generation Debt

Ashley Marinaccio Sep 25

Last spring, the amount of student debt in the United States passed the $1 trillion mark. For many, the struggle to pay back what they owe will take decades. Monthly letters from Sallie Mae serve as a constant reminder of what one contributor to occupystudentdebt.com described as “student loan slavery.”

Over the past 30 years, the average salaries of graduates from four-year colleges have grown to twice what high school graduates make. And yet, college graduates are grappling with the question: Is a college degree worth it? Here are some of their stories.


Kerrie Bond, 25
Debt: Around $40,000
Education: Pace University, BFA in Musical Theater
Current job: Part-time position as a publisher’s assistant at a real estate trade newspaper; sells tickets to Broadway shows in her spare time
Bottom line: I’m not sure anything is really worth this amount of debt. And mine isn’t even the worst.

Lauren Arneson, 28
Debt: Around $12,000
Education: Borough of Manhattan Community College, currently enrolled
Bottom line: I have mostly been able to get deferments so far since I am in and out of classes. Sallie Mae declined my application for a student loan last week. I am too scared to check the real number that I owe. I haven’t graduated yet, so it stands to get much worse.

Danielle Walker, 21
Debt: $16,500
Education: Fulton-Montgomery Community College and Kingsborough Community College, Associate’s degree in Communications, currently enrolled
Bottom line: My loan collector has changed almost twice a year since 2008. I’ve received notices to start paying back my loans even though I have yet to graduate. I’ve been charged interest for loans from my previous college, Fulton-Montgomery Community College, even though all payments are supposed to be in deferment.

Nicole Yvonne Duncan-Smith, 38
Debt: $110,000
Education: Spelman College, BA in Sociology; New York Theological Seminary, Masters in Divinity, currently enrolled
Bottom line: I believe that we should always invest in our lives, but by no means should we live under a boulder of debt that seems to grow bigger and bigger with each passing day. Banks have been bailed out but we have not. I am not lazy. Never have been. I am incredibly industrious and work very, very, hard. But this will be a thorn in my side for the rest of my life.

Robert Hieger, 50
Debt: $40,000
Education: City University of New York, BA in Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies/Integrated Web Applications and Design
Current job: Self-employed web designer
Bottom line: I honestly ask myself every day whether my college education was worth the debt. I have not come up with a conclusive answer.

Sarah Rotker, 30
Debt: $15,000
Education: Wagner College, BA in Arts Administration
Current job: Helps run a museum box office; babysits, tutors and bakes in her spare time
Bottom line: I recently got a collection call from ACS Education Services. The woman who called seemed sympathetic to what she undoubtedly recognized as the sound of complete and utter defeat in my voice. Toward the end of the phone call she asked, “Now, is there anything else I can help you with?” And I shot back, “Not unless you have a part-time job for me so I can make enough money to pay you!” She gave me a polite laugh, and then told me that she was working part-time making these calls to pay off her own student loans. As if this economy would pass up an opportunity for irony.

Stacey Oliver, 19
Debt: Unknown; Cost of college $240,000
Education: New York University, BA in Acting, currently enrolled
Bottom line: I definitely missed out on the “college experience.” I was so overwhelmed with the thought of paying off my loans, I’ve spent almost all of my free time working, and it hasn’t helped me make a dent in my loans. Instead it has made me restless, given me little time for schoolwork, and almost no time for a social life. I wish I knew how much debt I had. I don’t even have a ballpark number.