News » Features

Economics 101: Is the Heavy Burden of Student Debt Worth It?

Student loans saddle graduates with debt deep into their working lives


Page 3 of 3

Tuition at the University of Idaho College of Law is just less than $15,000 per year for Idaho residents, but has been growing between 5 and 7 percent per year. Add to that the cost of living, books and the dedicated Law School fee, and the University of Idaho estimates that the cost of attendance approaches $31,264.

After three years, the average indebtedness of a U of I Law School graduate is close to the national average for law students attending state law schools, and at $81,429, it's low compared to private law schools, where students rack up an average of $124,900 in debt before passing the bar exam.

It's a debt some don't want to face. As Jane Gordon sat in Pengilly's Saloon on a recent night, she came away with a Booze Clues trivia prize emblematic of the law school rat race--it was stamped with the face of a man wearing a manic expression with "Congratulations!" printed beneath.

Gordon rolled into University of Idaho Law School after a brief life of politics, during which she worked at the International Republican Institute and the Leadership Institute; but law school has caused her to rethink her ambitions. After three years of wrangling with studies and planning ahead for her career, she's now worried about the duration of her education, as though the diploma she will receive will be symbolic of the time she spent studying when she could have been doing other things.

"I'm worried about the time it took," she said.

Gordon is cultivating her employment options in Boise, and rather than putting her degree to use in the political sphere, she plans to deploy her skills at a local legal practice.

"I'd rather work for a smaller firm and have a life," she said.

A native of Boise, Gordon said she would like to settle back into Boise life. A graduate of Boise High School, she left for the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and briefly lived in France and Washington, D.C., but said that despite national trends of law students struggling to find work, Boise has a job market for people with her skill set--if they know where to look.

"There's enough opportunity that if you reach out enough you'll probably be OK," she said.

Gordon is optimistic about her job prospects, and said that the University of Idaho has been forthright about the likelihood of her finding work.

"The U of I has been really good about that, honestly," she said.

Lurking beneath her optimism, though, is the feeling of unease about her debt load. Though a scholarship paid her full tuition during her first year and further scholarships halved her tuition during her second and third years, by the time she graduates in 2013, Gordon will have accumulated $67,000 in debt, much of which will have paid for law school fees and living expenses.

She said the full realization of the cost of her education hasn't hit her yet.

"This is me right now," she said, indicating her calm expression. Next year, she said she'll be in tears when the loan payments start.

The larger paychecks that come with professions that require a degree can lure college graduates into graduate programs that carry price tags just as hefty as their undergraduate educations. Undertaking massive debt in pursuit of a professional career can raise doubts about a chosen career path--and in some cases, double student debt load, as it did for Andrew Ellestad.

Every month, Ellestad signs four checks for student loans totaling between $2,800 and $2,900--almost three-times his mortgage payment. Though he and his wife have a home and professional careers, "we know all-too-well what debt is like," Ellestad said.

"I've got a good job, and my wife has an excellent job as an RN. If one of us lost our jobs, we'd be toast. It'd be over pretty quick," he said.

Finance has long held a place in Ellestad's life. He majored in business and received a master's degree in business administration at Northwest Nazarene University. He now works at as a client business development manager. Before that, he was a personal banker at Wells Fargo Bank for more than two years.

Ellestad didn't anticipate that receiving a set of degrees that would make him competitive for banking and finance jobs--and landing one right out of graduate school--would come at such a high price, even before graduation.

Besides $10,000 his parents contributed, Ellestad paid for nearly his entire education through loans, maxing out the federally subsidized Stafford Loans each year he attended and paying the remainder with private loans. By the time he graduated, his loans had already accumulated $8,000 in interest.

After graduation, Ellestad and his wife moved in with his parents for nearly a year. Even after they had the money to move into their own home, they struggled to pay their student loan bills.

"For the first three years out of college, it was extremely tight," Ellestad said.

The years of hardship that followed his graduation came for Ellestad as a kind of betrayal. For as long as Ellestad can remember, he'd been told that education was the key to his success, and that student debt was a qualitatively better kind of debt than others. So when NNU accepted his application without offering him scholarships or grants, he wasn't deterred.

"I was groomed. I was told that if you get good grades and you graduate, you set yourself up for life," he said.

Ellestad's personal total student debt is $100,000. His wife's is $60,000. Reflecting on that figure now, he said he should have foreseen his present position as a working family man with a mortgage.

"NNU is a great school and I'm proud to have gone there, but it's really dependent on having a job and making payments," he said.

"If I could go back, I'd think a little harder about making the choices that I did."