May 15, 2011

Debt fears haunt student career hopes

WATERVILLE -- Colby College senior Megan Booth is putting her career goals on hold to make sure she can pay off her college debt first.

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Colby College senior Megan Booth, 22, of Montana, has about $20,000 of college debt to repay following graduation.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

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The 22-year-old wants to work on human rights and global inequality issues, but realizes that she can't take unpaid internships often required to get into the field, she said.

"I definitely feel the pressure to find a good job right away; now that I have all this debt on my hands, I don't feel I can slack off at all," she said.

It's a situation that is a reality for current college students entering a more competitive job market. Students today have more debt than past generations, when graduates worked for a single company their entire career, according to Booth, of Somers, Mont.

Booth has about $20,000 in college loans she has to start paying back after graduating in a couple of weeks from Colby, a private college in Waterville.

Instead of going to work for a government policy think tank in Washington D.C. to do unpaid research that could help launch her career, she is applying for jobs in communications and community outreach.

"This isn't exactly what I want to do, but it's pretty darn close and it pays the bills," she said.

Booth expects to have a starting salary around $30,000 per year. It gives her a better chance of starting to pay off college loans than taking an internship and working part-time to pay bills, she said.

"I'm very conscious of the fact that I'm going to be switching jobs every two to three years at first," she said. "I can't just focus on my career alone."

Colleges across Maine are trying to adapt to help students make tough choices on everything from paying off debt to picking a career, according to college officials.

From mounting college debt for graduates to increasingly specialized careers, college officials say they are feeling the pressure to keep up with a rapidly changing environment for students.

Partnerships between economic development agencies and colleges are also starting new programs in science and technology, forging new career paths to fill the demand for more graduates in emerging fields.

For many students, however, the biggest hurdle is still figuring out how to pay for college.

Colby Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Parker Beverage said in recent years he has seen more college students making decisions based on how much debt they'll have after graduation.

"A student who incurs a large amount of debt is not as inclined to go into teaching or some other job that doesn't pay a lot," he said.

Colby: Grants for loans

Colby had this in mind when it adopted a policy to replace certain loans with grants from the college, Beverage said. Students who qualify for financial aid packages are eligible for the college's grants, which eliminate $14,400 in loans over four years, according to Colby officials.

Beverage said Colby invested in the grants to make the college more affordable and attractive to students who were being affected by the rising tuition.

"They're scared away by having to borrow and having to leave with an indebtedness," Beverage said. "If you have to incur a substantial amount of debt, it will affect your decisions."

"This is not a state where we have a great many families that can pay for the full tuition," he said.

The financial aid package at Colby played a big role in her decision, Booth said.

Colby was among her top choices for college and it won out because it offered the best financial aid package, she said. Her debt would have been about $40,000 if she went to any of colleges she looked at on the West Coast, according to Booth, and the other schools had lower tuition costs than Colby.

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