Posted: December 6, 2012 at 7:01 pm

 


When Christina Kast graduated from West Virginia University’s School of Journalism in 2008, she had grand dreams of working in television. And she did get several job offers but felt that the salaries weren’t enough to enable her to pay off the thousands in loans she had amassed to earn her college degree. So Kast, now 26, got a job as a recruiter for WVU.

Kast is among the legions of recent college graduates who are burdened with significant student loans at a time when they can no longer be assured of a decent-paying job upon graduation. Indeed, the total amount of student loans in the U.S. has now surpassed the amount of debt from credit cards and auto loans. At the same time, the unemployment rate for college graduates is above the national average (it currently stands at 8.8 percent), and when graduates do get jobs, they often end up working outside their chosen fields.

The debt from student loans has now surpassed the debt from both auto loans and credit cards.

“You have to spend at least four years in college to find a good job, but there is a good chance you’ll end up in a field that you didn’t even major in,” Kast says. “I didn’t feel the money was there [in broadcasting] to support myself and make the payments on my loans.”

According to a report by the New York Federal Reserve Bank, student loan debt stands at $870 billion, higher than credit card loans ($693 billion) and auto loans ($730 billion). About 37 million people have outstanding student loan debt and a third of those are between the ages of 30 and 39. Another third is represented by people older than 40, indicating that only a small portion of college graduates are able to pay off their student debt in their 20’s.

On the whole, however, West Virginia students are in better shape with loans than students who attend second-tier private colleges or even other public universities. According to a report by the Institute for College Access and Success, the state of West Virginia’s 2011 college and university graduates left school with an average debt load of $26,000. The report ranks West Virginia 17th among states in its average student debt loan for the year. New Hampshire students graduated with the most debt ($32,440) while Utah students graduated with the least debt ($17,227). The average debt load for WVU students was $27,000, highest among public colleges in the state. This number has declined from $34,272 in 2010 and $36,895 in 2009.

Tresa Weimer, Interim Director of WVU’s Financial Aid office, said that there are a number of factors that have contributed to a lower debt load at WVU. Weimer said that the West Virginia Promise Scholarship, WVU’s lower tuition and multiple payment options and an increase in the number of students working while in school have all contributed to leaving WVU students with smaller debt loads upon graduation. WVU’s tuition is cheaper that most state universities around the country even for out-of-state students from places like New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. In-state tuition is $6,000 cheaper per semester than out-of-state tuition.

Even with the average debt load dropping at WVU, the tuition at the university has risen. The WVU Board of Governors recently approved a five-percent increase in tuition that took effect at the beginning of the 2012 fall semester. The five-percent increase raised tuition for in-state students to $3,045 a semester and $9,434 for out-of-state students. University officials say part of the tuition increase will be used to raise faculty salaries to more competitive levels.

“Raising salaries for faculty is necessary to keep the level of education high at WVU,” says Douglass. “But I think there are too many administrators and some fat could be trimmed at the top.”

Engineering is one of the few fields with plentiful job opportunities and good salaries.

Despite these tuition increases, many experts feel that pursuing higher education is still a good investment for most young people.

“I would advise everyone, especially young people, to get a college degree,” says Stratford Douglass, an associate professor of economics at WVU. “It is certainly worth the money and a necessity if you want to become successful.”

Douglass, who advises graduate students on ways to find employment, says that students should be aware of which fields are more likely to be hiring and offer decent pay. Professions such as healthcare and engineering, for example, are stable havens in the current economy, while jobs in energy and construction are subject to booms and busts. Education and journalism have job opportunities, but they do not offer great pay and are very competitive.

The mountains of debts that many students now face may force some of them down paths they never thought they would go. After her work for WVU as a recruiter, Kast took a job in marketing for the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra and then moved on to West Virginia State University to work in admissions. Although she has held multiple jobs since graduation, she says she has been forced to follow the money.

“Obviously broadcasting is what I wanted to do coming out of school, and one day I would like to give it a shot,” says Kast. “But if that doesn’t work out, I like where I am and can see myself making a career here.”