Degree of debt impacting millions with college loans

Degree of debt impacting millions with college loans

(RNN) - Picture the road of your life, a path that offers infinite possibilities.

"I wanted the American dream," Danielle Alluto tells us.

Alluto's dream meant taking the path of a college education.

"I'm going to graduate, I'm going to get this really great job," she recalls thinking to herself, years ago.

At 30 years old, Alluto's trip on the road of life has a big pothole: $104,000 in college debt. She says this six-figure detour has derailed her plans - her picture-perfect life erased.

"I'll never get married or buy a house or buy a new car or any of that stuff, no," she says. "It's out, out of the picture - kids, all of that. Why would I do that to my children?"

After nearly a decade of digging out of that financial pothole, she's barely made a dent and is still trying to pay off $90,000 in college debt.

"I'm surviving my life. I'm not living it," she says.

Alluto is not alone. This picture can be drawn for many of the more than 41 million Americans with college loans. All totaled, they total around $1.3 trillion, which dwarfs credit card and auto loan debt.

"It's hugely problematic," says Debbie Cochrane with the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success.

The government tracks the colleges with the most students having problems, identifying each school's repayment rate, the percentage of students succeeding in paying their loans back.  And for some schools, the numbers look bleak. The Memphis Institute of Barbering has the lowest student repayment rate in the country: just 6 percent.

"That means a lot of students probably are not getting what they bargained for out of that education," Cochrane says.

Statewide, students in Mississippi have the lowest repayment rate in the country at 48 percent.  Next are Arkansas, Kentucky and Arizona, at 52 percent. All totaled, 2,100 colleges across the country have less than 50 percent of their former students repaying their loans. That's roughly one third of the colleges the government collects this data from.

"When we look at default rates and we look at repayment rates, these are indicators of not just where students are struggling with loan debt, but really indicators where we have severe questions about college quality," Cochrane says. "And this is a crucial issue. And schools that are just enrolling students, allowing them or encouraging them to take on high levels of debt - knowing that they won't be able to repay them - that's more of a debt factory than anything else."

Experts say for the picture to improve, schools must be held accountable.

"I don't think there are many people who look at college accountability right now and say what we have is good enough," Cochrane says.  "There's way too many schools who are leaving students on a regular basis, typical students, with debts they can't repay.  Either they're not, you know, paying down their debt, they're ending up with ballooning balances or they're ending up in default. It's not acceptable."

"No one ever said look at other alternatives," says 30-year-old Bess Albritten, who could have used a reality check when she took out her loans. "I owe more on my student loans than on my house. I owe triple on student loans than I owe on my house."

Her picture is bleak: $280,000 in student debt, $110,000 of that in interest. Albritten earned two masters degrees but has a job that pays her just about $40,000 a year. A quarter of of her monthly income goes to pay off a loan - payments she'll likely make until she reaches near retirement age.

"It's a very pretty piece of paper," she says. "It sits on my wall. It's beautiful. I use it. It was one of my biggest accomplishments outside of my children.  But is it worth $280,000?  Probably not."

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