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Could student loans create the next ‘debt bomb’?

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Josh Tisonyai graduated from Ohio State last spring with a communication degree in hand, $26,000 in student loan debt and hope for the future.

Even with a post-graduation job, Tisonyai lives at home, relies on his parents and struggles to make ends meet, a feat that would not be possible if he had to pay rent and other bills.

Like Tisonyai, thousands of other college graduates in Ohio and nationwide are finding it increasingly difficult to pay for school long after classes have ended.

One financial expert calls their collective financial burden a “debt bomb” that is waiting to explode.

Although Tisonyai found a job upon graduating at WHIZ news in Zanesville, Ohio, but he said he is still struggling to keep his head above water.

“Financially, it’s awful because it’s my first job right outside of college, so it doesn’t pay a whole lot,” Tisonyai said. “I’m looking into teaching to try to get some extra money right now.”

Tisonyai said he is living at home with his parents and paying off student loans at a rate of about $350 per month.

“I have the luxury of living with my parents and having a support system,” he said. “If I didn’t have that, I’m not sure how I would get by. I feel for those people who are paying off their loans and have to pay other bills too.”

Tisonyai is one of many OSU graduates who was forced to take out student loans to pay for their education.

There are 8.2 percent of students in Ohio defaulting on their loans, according to fiscal year 2009 data from the U.S. Department of Education.

Officials are predicting student loan debt to be at an all-time high nationally. Figures indicate students from Ohio in 2010 averaged $27,713 in student loan debt upon college graduation, which is the seventh highest amount in the nation according to the Project on Student Debt.

This study also said two-thirds of 2010 college graduates have acquired some type of student-loan debt.

For the 2011-2012 school year, Ohio residents pay $9,735 in tuition costs per three-quarter year and non-residents pay $24,630, according to the Office of the University Registrar.

Rachel Willison, who graduated from OSU last quarter, just found a job before she has to pay off what she estimates to be $75,000 in loans.

“Basically I’m going to be paying two rent bills,” Willison said. “If I wouldn’t have found a job, I would have had to delay my payments.”

Jim Lynch, a spokesman for the university, said OSU takes aggressive steps in assisting students with student loans.

“Eighty-one percent of incoming freshmen receive financial aid in the form of grants, loans and/or scholarships,” Lynch said.

Lynch said OSU’s efforts continue to increase in 2012.

“Ohio State has increased financial aid significantly to maintain access for qualified students. Last year, Ohio State awarded $98 million in institutional scholarships and grants,” he said. “This year that number will be $108 million.”

John Rao, attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, said student debt causes a downward spiral for students with affects echoing into careers.

“Even in the best of economic times when jobs are plentiful, young people with considerable debt burdens end up delaying life-cycle events such as buying a car, purchasing a home, getting married and having children,” Rao said. “Piling up student loans in middle age is even more troublesome.”

William Brewer, president of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, agreed with Rao.

“The amount of student borrowing crossed the $100 billion threshold for the first time in 2010 and total outstanding loans exceeded $1 trillion for the first time last year,” he said.

One 23-year-old graduate, Stef Gray, has spoken out against Sallie Mae, a private loan company that specializes in student loans, to try to end the $50 monthly fee that students have to pay when they ask for forbearance. Forbearance is when a student asks the loan company to delay when the student must start making payments on their loans.

Patricia Christel, a Sallie Mae spokesperson, said the company changed its policy on Feb. 3, so that the $50 monthly fee goes toward the student’s loans.

“When customers experiencing temporary financial difficulty ask to suspend scheduled payments, we ask for a good-faith payment to emphasize the terms and long-term implications of their decision to use forbearance,” Christel said. “We have been giving careful consideration to our policy for some time, and we are changing it to apply the good-faith payment to the customers’ balance after they resume a track record of on-time payments.”

But student loan debt does not simply affect recent graduates or students. Rao said this debt crisis is also affecting parents who co-sign for loans.

“And parents who take out loans for children or co-sign loans will find those loans more difficult to pay as they stop working and their incomes decline,” Rao said.

Brewer said this is when the situation becomes difficult for families, due to retirement.

“In many cases, parents responsible for the student loans are in or near retirement years and facing repayment demands,” he said.

This happened to one Vietnam War veteran, Dave Ingham, who lives outside Minneapolis, Minn., and is paying off his son’s student loans.

“My wife and I live in a condo and she receives barely over $500 per month in social security. Our son has to live with us or else he would be homeless,” Ingham said. “My wife and I and our son are being sued by a collection agency representing Sallie Mae.”

Christel said the company works with its customers one-on-one to ensure they can repay their loans effectively, which might include payment programs.

“We take student loan indebtedness very seriously, and to that end, we make available a variety of tools and programs that help students make informed decisions that keep the cost of borrowing low and help student loan customers successfully repay their loans,” Christel said. “The vast majority of our customers are successfully meeting their obligations.”

Christel said Sallie Mae does encourage co-signers to help to avoid defaulting.

“Most loans are co-signed by parents and we actively encourage cosigners to help,” she said. “In fact, last year more than 90 percent of loans originated were co-signed.”

Kim Norris, director of communications for the Ohio Board of Regents, said although student debt is a problem, there are ways students can avoid it.

Norris laid out three options for students to reduce loan debt.

“In Ohio, we are so lucky to have colleges and universities within driving distance from your house,” Norris said. “One thing that has become popular and students take advantage of is going to a community college and planning to transfer to a university.”

Norris said this option allows students to thoroughly plan out their courses and credits. Secondly, she said students should take advantage of college credit that is offered during high school or take Advanced Placement courses to test out of college classes.

“Students can walk into college with credits under their belt,” Norris said. “A lot of schools offer the option of completing courses for college credit at the high school level. And you also have AP classes that you can take tests to gain college credit.”

The last option Norris presented was selecting a program that has a three-year option, which would reduce education costs.

“At least 10 percent of programs have to be three-year programs, according to legislation that was just signed in Ohio,” Norris said.

During a visit that was focused on education, Vice President Joe Biden came to Gahanna Lincoln High School on Jan. 12 to talk about the cost of higher education and what the Obama administration has done to reduce those costs.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan outlined a few things the federal government has done to promote education, including making the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form more understandable and providing pay-as-you-go loans for students based on their salaries.

“We have challenged universities to cap their tuition costs, despite inflation and economic times,” he said. “And I know universities are doing all they can to keep costs down, like encouraging students to finish in three years instead of four.”

Despite Duncan and Biden’s optimism, Brewer said if economic times do not change, the future does not look promising for American students.

“Take it from those of us on the front line of economic distress in America,” he said. “This could very well be the next debt bomb for the U.S. economy.”

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