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Put it on my tab: Local college students tally their student loan debt

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 16, 2009 - Dawn Gray, 19, estimates that she will owe about $30,000 in student loans by the time she completes her bachelor's degree in international relations at Webster University.

Gray, a junior from Belleville, says she is not overly concerned about her financial obligation at this time, but she will be "thoroughly in debt" when she graduates.

"I'm not quite sure how long it's going to take me to pay it back," she said. "It just depends on where I work, how soon I get a job after I graduate, things like that."

Gray said her loans primarily cover housing costs, though she estimates she won't need to borrow as much when she moves off campus next year. She is currently taking time off from her job at a local retail store to concentrate on her schoolwork. She plans to return to her job in the near future; until then, her parents are aiding her financially.

"Thank goodness for them," Gray said.

Casandra Douthit, 22, a senior at McKendree University, estimates that she will have borrowed between $30,000 and $38,000 when she completes her bachelor's degree in athletic training. She plans to pay off her loan debt within five years after graduate school.

"I figure if I get a job after I get my master's and I'm making about 35 [thousand dollars] a year and I live like I do now, it should be paid off within five years," said Douthit, a native of Altamont, Ill., who works part-time.

Though Douthit's tuition is covered by financial aid and grants, she said that her earnings don't cover all of her personal expenses. She uses student loans to cover housing costs, as well as food and bills.

According to the 2007-2008 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, 65.6 percent of students at four-year universities use some sort of student aid to finance their educations. Although the average cumulative debt varies between public and private universities, statistics indicate that student loan debt averages just more than $19,000 for undergraduate students.

Sharon Berry, director of student financial aid at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, said students seem to be taking the same average amount in loans as in years past. However, Berry said she has noticed a "definite upsurge" in the numbers of students applying for aid in recent years.

"Versus five years ago, when we would have maybe 9,000 students apply, this year, we have had almost 12,000 students apply," Berry said. "That is most of our student body."

Conversely, an official at Washington University in St. Louis reported a decrease in student loans at that institution. Bill Witbrodt, director of student financial services, explained that 25 percent of the university's undergraduate students take out loans.

"The bottom line with us is that we've had a decrease in student loans," Witbrodt said, "but it's because of the initiative that Washington University has taken to decrease the number of loans that students have to take out."

Witbrodt cited changes in the industry as the cause for fluctuation in loan trends.

"The loan business isn't as profitable for lenders as it was in the past because of recent government regulation," Witbrodt said.

Through the Wash. U. initiative, students from households with less than $60,000 in income do not take out student loans. Instead, the university pairs up qualifying students with financial aid agreements and work-study programs so they are able to finance their educations.

Besides financial aid and work-study, students pursue a variety of paths to pay for their schooling. Amy Krieg, a 20-year-old sophomore at St. Louis University, said she takes the maximum amount offered to her in subsidized federal loans each year. Krieg's twin brother, a student at Webster, also relies on loans to pay for school.

Krieg estimates her personal debt at $20,000, but she said her parents have also taken loans to help them both.

"There was no real way for my parents to be able to keep up on everything with two kids in college," said Krieg, a health information management major from Freeburg.

Krieg currently works part-time at a public health research and consulting firm to get a start on loan repayment. In addition to loans, Krieg receives grant money, including extra funds for being one of two twins in college.

"That's like our consolation prize," she said, laughing.

Krieg knows that she is part of a larger trend of student loan debt.

"I feel like, at SLU, there's a lot of kids who expect to be in debt ... for a while after they graduate," she said.

Megan McClure is a mass communications student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. 

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