Karen Burger graduated from Northeastern University in 2012, not exactly sure of what postgraduate life would look like. A religious studies major with a minor in East Asian studies, she pictured theology school and working at a faith-based nonprofit.
Then reality — including $96,000 in student debt accumulated over five years of college — smacked her career plans. She moved back to her mother’s home near Philadelphia, took a teller’s job at TD Bank, and when the interest on her monthly payments increased, shifted her focus from the divine to the military, reaching out to an Army recruiter in the hope of finding some relief from her debt.
“I would never have considered it if it weren’t for the loans,” she said.
Burger, 24, is among thousands of recent college graduates whose career plans are getting dashed or delayed by crushing student debt — which many took on with the belief it would open opportunities. Student loan debt nationwide has surged 45 percent in the past three years alone, ballooning to $1.2 trillion from $826 billion in 2010, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Only mortgages account for more of the nation’s consumer debt.
The average member of the class of 2013 graduated with $28,000 in student debt, according to the Federal Reserve, but 1 in 8 recent graduates owe more than $50,000 on student loans. President Obama has made college affordability a priority, and last week took a two-day bus tour to call more attention to the issue.
“It’s like taking out a mortgage when you’re 18,” said Rory O’Sullivan, policy director at Young Invincibles, a national advocacy group for 18- to 34-year-olds.
James Ryan, who graduated from Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., two years ago, thought he might be on the management track or enrolling in an MBA program around now. But with $90,000 in debt accumulated to finance his bachelor’s degree in business, graduate school seems impossible.
After he graduated, the pressure to meet his loan payments led him to take two dead-end sales jobs that ultimately did not generate enough in commissions to service his $1,200 a month in student debt. He recently began selling software for a Burlington company, a job that seems promising. But Ryan, 25, still has to live with his parents in Stow, because he can’t afford an apartment and his loan payments.
Student debt, he said, “holds me back from any kind of freedom of what I want to do.”
Bryant University officials did not respond to requests for comment. Jane Brown, vice president of Northeastern’s enrollment management, said the school works to make its programs affordable, providing an average of $25,000 in grants to students, slightly less than half the annual cost.
Brown said the school also tries to make sure students are aware of the amount of their loans and their responsibilities to pay them. “We are continuing to ramp up our outreach to students to help them become more financially literate,” she said.
The impact of the huge and growing debt burden could reach beyond this generation of young workers. A May study released by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that 30-year-olds paying student loans were less likely to own a home than their counterparts without student debt and more likely to delay buying cars, appliances, furniture, and other goods and services.
Delaying such spending could have an impact not only on the companies that make, sell, and service such products, but on the broader economy, which depends on consumer spending for around 70 percent of economic activity.
“If we’re not able to address these issues now, it’s not going to affect only student loan borrowers,” said Rohit Chopra, the student loan ombudsman at the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, an independent federal regulatory agency, “but it may affect all of us.”
About 37 million Americans are burdened with student loan debt, not counting the millions still in college. Even those who attend lower-cost public colleges and universities can accumulate substantial debt.
Melanie Mulvey earned several scholarships during her time at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, but the 2012 graduate still owes roughly $14,000 in student loans.
With recent federal budget cuts eliminating her fellowship in international relations policy and subsequently the deferral of her loan payments, she put off her plans to earn joint master’s and law degrees and took the first job she could find, as an administrative assistant at Hampshire College.
“It’s definitely not what I was going for,” she said.
Mackenzie Hunter graduated from Northeastern in May with a dual degree in international affairs and anthropology and $70,000 in debt. After working and studying in more than a half-dozen countries, the 23-year-old Pittsfield native had hoped to join the Peace Corps. But, she said, “Sallie Mae won’t defer my loans.”
Sallie Mae, of Newark, Del., is among the private financial services companies that make student loans, imposing much more restrictive conditions on repayment than federal loan programs. Unlike federal loans, private student debt cannot usually be consolidated or refinanced to lower payments.
A Sallie Mae spokeswoman confirmed the company doesn’t consolidate or refinance loans, or defer payments if borrowers enter national service programs such as the Peace Corps. She noted that more than 90 percent of its customers make on-time payments.
About $50,000 of Hunter’s loans come from private lenders, and she’s worried how she’ll make the $1,000 a month payments that begin in November when she earns just $1,300 at Flour Bakery in Boston. She’s looking for additional jobs, including nanny positions.
“I’m at the point where I’m ready to do anything that would pay more,” she said.
Burger, the Northeastern religion major, also has most of her loans from private financial companies. Her payments are $800 a month, but would be even higher if her federal loans weren’t on an income-based system that has deferred those payments because of her low earnings.
Burger works as a customer service representative at the TD Bank near her childhood home near Philadelphia, making $11 an hour. Her loan payments eat up more than half her take-home pay, and she wonders when she’ll be able to move out of her mother’s home.
That’s why she recently contacted the local recruiting office of the Army Reserve, which offers student loan forgiveness to those who serve six years.
After making it through basic training, there was a chance of becoming a chaplain.
“It seemed like there might be some help or relief for student loans if you went into the Army,” she said.
“I kind of feel stuck. I don’t know where to go, or where to turn.”
But Burger has asthma. The Army turned her down.