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College graduates grapple with burden of student loans

by Keith Barber

James Scott, a Wake Forest graduate, has struggled to pay back more than $45,000 in student loans since graduating from the school in 2008. (courtesy photo)

Despite growing up poor on Barney Avenue in Winston- Salem’s Southside neighborhood, James “Scooter” Scott was determined to become the first person in his family to go to college. Considering the seemingly insurmountable obstacles he faced throughout his childhood and adolescent years, it would’ve been quite a feat for him to simply finish high school much less go on to post-secondary education.

When he was a freshman in high school, Scott’s mother left home one morning and never returned. After his mother’s departure, James and his father came to depend on one another. His father, James Sr., suffers from Type 1 diabetes so Scott would stay up with him every night.

When his father’s blood-sugar level would drop dramatically, Scott was there to pour syrup into his dad’s mouth to prevent him from going into a diabetic coma.

During his sophomore year at Parkland High School, Scott decided he was going to college.

“I wanted to give my dad something to be proud of,” he wrote in an essay.

His senior year, Scott drove to the Wake Forest University campus to pick up an application. Five months later, Scott received an acceptance letter from the school’s director of undergraduate admissions.

“Very quickly a sobering thought entered my mind, ‘How will you pay for this?’” Scott writes.

Wake Forest offered to cover nearly 75 percent of Scott’s tuition through need-based financial aid.

“After that the financial aid statement from the school showed a balance of $10,000 a year,” Scott writes. “My counselor at [Wake] assured me that financial aid increases every year, so my award would increase each year I was enrolled. Besides, if I could survive college and get my degree, then the money would start rolling in.”

Scott worked two jobs throughout his collegiate career at Wake Forest and lived at home so he could keep an eye on his father. He excelled at Wake, frequently making the Dean’s List. During his senior year, Cameron Meador, the school’s director of gift stewardship, approached Scott to work for the university.

Scott agreed to help raise money for student scholarships. He is profiled in a university publication entitled “Open Doors” that lists his numerous accolades and achievements.

Scott graduated from Wake Forest in the spring of 2008 owing more than $45,000 in student loans. He received glowing letters of recommendation from his professors and touted an impressive résumé but struggled to land a job. He reached out to the school’s career services office but no interviews materialized. Scott believed that all the work he had done on the school’s behalf would somehow pay off.

“I applied for a job with University Advancement — one of their fellows positions — it was exactly what I wanted to do,” Scott said.

He got an interview but didn’t get the job. Scott found an online posting for a local auto dealer, set up the interview and landed his first post-college position. His starting salary was $35,000 and he worked 12 hours a day.

“It was the most miserable experience of my life,” Scott said. Now, he works for a local plumbing contractor. His monthly student loan payments are $550 and he struggles to make ends meet.

Considering his current circumstances, he said it’s hard not to feel bitter about his collegiate experience.

“No more than two days have ever gone by in the last three years that I didn’t think about this and feel like crap over it,” Scott said. “Here I am out in the cold. All the people that said I was so important, where are they now?” Evidence is mounting that recent graduates are facing increasing difficulty with repayment of student loans. Earlier this year, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the national student loan default rate had increased from 6.7 percent to 7 percent.

Nearly 3.4 million borrowers began paying back their student loans between October 2007 and September 2008, and more than 238,000 defaulted on their loans.

“This data confirms what we already know — that many students are struggling to pay back their student loans during very difficult economic times,” Duncan said.

Van Nguyen also graduated from Wake Forest University in the spring of 2008. After he received his diploma, Nguyen had nearly $50,000 in student loans to pay back, and securing a job after college proved challenging.

“It was extremely tough,” Nguyen said. “For about a month and a half after college, I couldn’t find a job for the life of me. I was either too overqualified or underqualified.

I had to go through a temp agency and finally got a temp job for nine months.”

An economics major, Nguyen held several temporary jobs after graduating from Wake, including restaurant server. Last year, Nguyen got his lucky break when a local firm hired him as a research coordinator.

“When I was coming out of Wake, I’m guilty of having a sense of entitlement,” Nguyen said. “I thought I could get a really good job and learn from that job, but the first few jobs I got, people didn’t give a damn where I went to school.”

Due to the tough job market, Nguyen said most of his college classmates went on to graduate school.

“There was basically no exit strategy for us,” he said. “It was like, ‘You went to Wake; you graduated. Just use the name and you’ll get somewhere with it.’” Currently, Nguyen’s monthly student loan payment is $250, which he says is reasonable. Nguyen said he feels extremely fortunate to have found a good job even if it has nothing to do with what he studied at Wake Forest.

Student borrowers who need assistance paying back their loans should visit www.federalstudentaid.ed.gov. They can also contact the holders of their loans to inquire about repayment options. To learn more, visit www.nslds.ed.gov or call the Education Department’s Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1.800.433.3243.

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