HANCOCK COUNTY — When Jordan Centers enrolled in college in 2005, it seemed like the logical next step.
She had the grades to get in; she had a vision of what type of career she was after; she was motivated. She just didn’t have the money.
So Centers took out student loans to cover the costs of her degree, a bachelor’s of social work from IUPUI in Indianapolis.
But now, almost six years after graduation, Centers, 29, of Greenfield is still chipping away at $45,000 in debt, month by month. She qualifies for an income-based repayment plan that lowers her monthly bill, but the $200 payments still claim about 20 percent of her monthly income. If she didn’t qualify for that plan, which will take longer to pay off, she’d have to pay about $650 each month — more than half of what she makes each month.
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Centers estimates another $600 goes toward her credit card, car lease, cellphone, gas and other payments. With just about $200 left of her paycheck, Centers has little flexibility to take on other costs, like living on her own. Instead, she lives with her mom, saving money on utilities and other household expenses.
Student debt is the highest it’s ever been, with Indiana ranking 13th in the country for the highest amount of debt racked up by 2014 graduates, according to a report from the Institute for College Access & Success, an independent, national nonprofit that seeks to make higher education more available and affordable.
More than half of Indiana college seniors who graduated last year — 61 percent — owed money upon completion of their degree. The report shows those graduates owed more than $29,000 on average.
While that’s a modest, 7-percent uptick in the number of Hoosiers who borrowed compared with 2004, the average debt has increased 50 percent during the past decade, up from about $19,400 per student.
While loans provide the means for students to pursue higher education, they can also leave borrowers indebted for decades and unable to keep up with unrealistic repayment plans, forcing some to default.
To meet monthly deadlines, debtors can find themselves holding off on long-term life plans and burdened by everyday expenses.
Centers, a first-generation college graduate, said that while she received plenty of encouragement from relatives when she was considering college, she didn’t receive much guidance about the financial implications of the next few years.
“I don’t think I realized at the time that I could be paying these loans back for the rest of my life,” Centers said. “I was geared up for college, and that’s all I was thinking about. But after you graduate, you’re just on your own.”
High school counselors are charged with helping seniors prepare to make those decisions, ones that will financially impact them for years should they decide to rely on student loans to finance higher education.
Sherry Foster, a guidance counselor at Greenfield-Central High School, said she strives to provide students with the resources they need to prepare themselves.
It can be tough to strike a balance between giving a student advice while still leaving them to make their own decisions, she said.
Upon receiving college acceptance letters, some students are blinded by the prospect of attending a specific institution and want to do whatever it takes — or costs — to graduate, she said.
“It can be hard to get them to slow down and consider other good options,” Foster said. “You want to show them what it could end up costing in the long run and show them what’s realistic.”
And though Foster said she rarely hears from students after they graduate from the high school, she knows the perils of student debt.
Her niece, who recently graduated from Indiana University, discovered after a diminutive grace period that she needs to pay $700 each month to meet the terms of her loan plan, she said.
Danielle Daugherty, executive director of LINK, a local nonprofit that seeks to connect prospective students of all ages with the resources they need to navigate higher education, said the key to loan payments is to know what’s coming.
“You want to catch it on the preventative end and navigate the system to make it work for you,” Daugherty said.
Part of the problem, Daugherty said, is that many colleges continue to raise tuition costs annually, she said.
She’s advised clients to take as many transferable prerequisite courses as possible at more affordable institutions — community colleges, she said.
Students can then transfer those courses to any institution that will accept them, sparing them from heftier fees that many colleges charge for the same courses.
It’s important to be conscientious of those options, Daugherty said.
Centers estimates she’s paid off about $7,000 of what she owes since 2010, but hopes to have her loans behind her soon enough.
With five more years of payments, Centers, who works at Shares, a social-service agency, will qualify for a federal student debt forgiveness program, eligible only to public service professionals who have met repayment deadlines during a 10-year period.
Until then, though, Centers is holding off on some significant moves that she might be able to consider otherwise, like buying her own house or starting a family, she said.
She lives with her mother, which spares her from some other monthly expenses, she said.
“I’m not in any place to purchase my own home or start a family,” she said. “Those are both huge expenses, but I’ll need to pay back my loans before that.”
Indiana ranks 13th in the average amount of debt accrued by seniors who graduated from public and private colleges in 2014.
The majority of Indiana college seniors who graduated in 2014 – 61 percent – owed money upon completion of their degree.
On average, 2014 college graduates in Indiana owed $29,222.
Source: Institute for College Access & Success