LONG BEACH -- When film student Chris Reyes talks about the $430 he pays each month toward his student loan, he uses the movie Jaws as a metaphor.
“It’s like a shark that takes a chunk out of me every month,” said Reyes, who graduated from California State University, Long Beach last year owing over $45,000 in student debt. “I haven’t eaten out at a restaurant in a really long time.”
Reyes has managed to scrape by with a part time job at bookstore, while he looks for a second job to help cover his bills, including his student loan payments. “I knew I would have to get a second part-time job once I started at Barnes & Noble,” said Reyes, who began working at the chain store last summer.
Reyes is not alone. Outstanding student debt across the United States has reached $1.2 trillion according to Forbes, and is increasing at a faster rate than mortgages and auto loans. Seventy-one percent of 2013 college graduates had student loan debt, with an average of $29,400 per borrower, and more than half of Californians have student debt with an average of $20,000, according to data compiled by the Institute for College Access and Success.
“My parents kept telling me that if I get a college degree I’ll get a job because that’s what happened in their generation, but now that’s not the case,” said Tatiana Bush, a recent graduate of UC Irvine. “There are so many more hurdles that we have to jump through than in past generations. We have more things we have to add to our resume in order to even be seen.”
Because of her student loans, Bush has decided to join a pro-women’s basketball team in Georgia rather than pursue a graduate degree.
“If I got to grad school, I’m going to have to take out another loan, and I don’t want to even get into that because I haven’t even paid off my current student loans,” said Bush. “I could make six figures playing basketball overseas, and that sounds more promising to me than working at a retail store for a little over minimum wage.”
A market survey conducted by the real estate website Redfin found that a significant number of prospective first-time homebuyers – 16 percent – said student loans were preventing them from buying a house, while 33 percent said student debt delayed them from purchasing a home for one or two years.
“I haven’t been in a situation where I would be looking for a house, but I’m fearful for that day to come,” said Nathan Bronson, an alumni of San Francisco State University who owes $30,000 in student loans.
Bronson believes that the student debt crisis has made people of his generation more skeptical about going to college.
“From my standpoint, I don’t really see the people who got college degrees having much more of an advantage than people that just have a high school diploma,” said Bronson.
Yet according to Georgetown University, more than six out of ten jobs will require a college degree by 2018.
“Sometimes I question whether or not I should have taken out student loans in order to get my degree,” said Nancy Alocer, who studied anthropology at UC Davis and now pays $500 a month towards her student loans. Without her student debt, Alocer says she would be using that money to build a business with her siblings.
Maritza Reyna, who specializes in education loans at Consumer Credit Counseling Services of Orange County, believes that some students might be causing themselves harm by taking out higher loans than they need.
“A lot of students actually take out more money for unnecessary purchases, like a new bed for their dorm,” said Reyes. “So they take out more for little luxuries versus using the money just for their tuition and their books.”
Reyna also advises recent college graduates to budget their expenses and to have an estimated figure of how much they owe every month.
“Even if you defer payments on your loan, the interest will keep occurring, so the more you defer the bigger your loan grows,” said Reyna.
However, some college graduates, like Bronson, have put off paying down their student loans, simply because they can’t afford it.
“The interest is probably incurring as we speak,” said Bronson, who recently got a job doing video work for the L.A. Kings. “Right now it’s just affecting me mentally, but I believe that someday it will affect me physically as well.”
Ben Novotny is a student reporter at VoiceWaves, a youth-led community news outlet dedicated to deepening the coverage of community health-related issues in Long Beach, California. VoiceWaves is a project of New America Media, supported by a grant from The California Endowment.