These are the students most crushed by the debt crisis

Rhapsody Taylor, a junior studying dance at University of the Arts, in her Pennsauken home.

Two months and a $14,110 bill stand between Rhapsody Taylor and her dreams.

A rising junior at the University of the Arts, Taylor is a straight-A student stuck in an impossible situation: She can’t afford tuition costs to return to school in the fall, and her mother’s own $80,000 in student debt left her without a loan cosigner.

What remains is a tab — UArts’ $44,000 annual tuition minus grants and scholarships — that the 20-year-old from Pennsauken has no idea how she’ll pay by August. Her mother, Shawnta, 46, said she wishes she could cosign a loan, but can’t due to debt, largely accrued from her own graduate studies in 2015 at a for-profit online university.

“I feel like somewhere,” she said, “I failed.”

The image of a student plagued by debt is often of a middle-class millennial who owes $100,000 from attending a four-year college. Those students are no doubt struggling, whether it’s having trouble affording a down payment on a house or delaying marriage until they’re in a better financial situation.

But the data show those who are most buried in student debt are people like Rhapsody and Shawnta. A disproportionate number are black. They are often older than 40. Almost two-thirds of the student debt in the country is held by women. Many attended for-profit colleges. Some didn’t graduate, leaving them in debt for a certificate they never received.

They’re people like Elvis Vest, a 36-year-old Philadelphian whose wages are being garnisheed to cover the $13,000 he owes after attending the University of Phoenix but not graduating. They’re like Alexis Wilson, a rising senior at St. Joseph’s University who took out three loans to cover about $30,000 in expenses per year. She has no idea what her total tab is — she’s too scared to look. And they’re like Melody Bostic, who’s $60,000 in debt after getting a marketing degree she says she’s hardly used.

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Rhapsody Taylor (right), a junior studying dance at the University of the Arts, with her mother, Shawnta.

The well-documented crisis is particularly acute in Pennsylvania, which at 2016 graduation had the second-highest average debt load in the country — $35,759, according to an analysis from the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS). Nearly 70 percent of students of four-year institutions in Pennsylvania graduated with some sort of education-related burden that year — fourth-highest in the nation. New Jersey also ranked in the top 20 states in both average debt and percentage of students with debt.

Student loan debt nationally is hovering close to $1.5 trillion, more than double what it was 10 years ago, and nearly as much as is owed on credit cards and auto loans combined. Officials said in May that interest rates on federal student loans will increase for the 2018-19 academic year.

A financial crunch for women and minorities

Some graduating high school seniors have weighed cheaper alternatives to traditional four-year schools. Kaiana Oquendo, 18, won a scholarship through the Philadelphia Futures program that she said will cover about half the $31,000 annual freight (that includes room and board) for Pennsylvania State University’s main campus. She’s talked about being a Nittany Lion since kindergarten.

But had she not received that scholarship, she said, she would have enrolled in community college for fear of racking up too much debt.

“It just terrifies me,” she said.

A recent analysis from the nonprofit American Association of University Women found that although women make up a little more than half of students enrolled in college, they hold nearly two-thirds of the outstanding student debt. Women are more likely to take on student loans and on average take on more than men, the nonprofit found.

The association’s CEO, Kim Churches, cited studies that show that families save more for boys than girls. Among nontraditional students, women often take longer to complete degree programs because they make up the majority of caregivers. Once women take on more debt, they take longer on average to pay it back than men. Some advocates blame the gender wage gap.

“These imbalances just compound over time,” Churches said. “Higher student debt, lower pay, all these factors add up to leaving women behind.”

It’s worse for minority women. A study from TICAS showed black students who entered college in 2003 were more likely to default on their loans after 12 years than their white counterparts. Almost four in 10 black students went into default over that period, compared with 21 percent of Hispanic students, 12 percent of white students, and 6 percent of Asian students. (Defaulting on a loan can increase the amount owed while drastically lowering the borrower’s credit score.)

Default Rate by Race

African American students were more likely to end up in default than students of other races and ethnicities
SOURCE: The Institute for College Access and Success
Staff graphic

An analysis of nationwide graduate student debt in 2016 showed 30 percent of black students owed at least $100,000, which was three times the rate for white students.

Rachel Fishman, a researcher at New America, an education policy think tank, said some federal student loans and the debt that comes with them can exacerbate income inequality among different races over time.

“You can’t put aside the universal fact that this country has deep racial problems in terms of discrimination in the labor market, the housing market,” she said, “no matter how you craft federal policies.”

Melody Bostic, a black woman who graduated from $50,000-per-year Drexel University with a degree in marketing, is $60,000 in debt — having hardly used her degree, she says. Bostic is on a payment plan that costs her about $300 a month. Now, she’s working as a recruiter in Philadelphia, and says that if she had known she’d be drowning in student loan debt, she would have gone instead to community college.

“If I could do it all over again, I would do a lot of things differently,” she said. “One thing schools are failing with is preparing kids to think about finances.”

Higher education experts blame ballooning student loan debt on long-declining higher education support from the states coupled with high tuition, especially in Pennsylvania. One TICAS report indicated private loan borrowing is concentrated in certain states, and showed that of the 100 schools where graduates borrow the most in private loans, 34 are in Pennsylvania. The state accounts for just 5 percent of college graduates in the country.

For the 2017-18 academic year, the University of Pittsburgh had the second-highest tuition for in-state students ($19,080) among public universities in the country, second only to the College of William and Mary in Virginia, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Penn State’s main campus had the fourth highest, at $18,436.

Of the public schools that reported debt to TICAS, the highest was Lincoln University, a state-related historically black university, where the average debt for a graduating student in 2016 was $46,000, and 86 percent of graduates had debt. (The same year, average debt was about $37,000 for graduates of fellow state-related schools Penn State and Temple University.)

The for-profit predicament

Michael Antoniadis feels like he’s watching everyone around him succeed while he’s stuck.

The 31-year-old from Upper Darby enrolled at ITT Technical Institute, a now-defunct for-profit college that was accused of pushing students into risky loans, in 2012 hoping to get training for a job in computer science. Miscommunication with the school over his courses forced him to switch programs and pushed back his graduation by a year and a half. Now, he’s $70,000 in debt for what was originally a two-year program. He can’t get work in computer science, and he’s driving for Uber while caring for his mother and grandmother. His loan payments are on hold, as he’s filed with the Department of Education for a loan discharge.

“The three years went down the drain,” Antoniadis said, “and I’m up a creek without a paddle.”

Antoniadis is working with Jeffrey First, an attorney who specializes in student loan debt and personal financing. He said clients who attend for-profit schools often can’t find a job adequate to pay off the debt they accrued.

For-profit colleges have long been criticized for aggressively recruiting low-income students, while the schools tend to be more expensive than public institutions. Higher debt coupled with lower wages upon either dropping out or graduating can make loan repayment that much more difficult.

Default Rate by School Type

Students who attended for-profit colleges were more likely to end up in default
SOURCE: The Institute for College Access and Success
Staff graphic

The TICAS study on loan default showed almost half of students who first attended for-profit colleges defaulted on their loans within 12 years, which was four times the rate of students at public colleges. Sandy Baum, a researcher at the Urban Institute who studies student loan debt, said black students disproportionately enroll in for-profit schools, as do older students, who often borrow more because of higher federal loan limits and because they tend to take a longer time to complete degrees.

She said those struggling most with loan debt aren’t necessarily those who started with the most — it’s people with any amount of debt and no degree. It’s those students who often have lower-paying jobs, prolonging loan repayment.

Vest is in that predicament. The father of three works in building maintenance and is $13,000 in debt after attending a Center City University of Phoenix campus in 2009 to study business.

After a disagreement with a professor lowered his grade, he was put on academic probation. Around the same time, his son was born, and his grandmother was ill, so he dropped out. He thought he’d deferred his debt until three months ago, when he noticed his paychecks were several hundred dollars short. He discovered his wages were being garnisheed to cover his federal student loan debt. That will go on for two more months, until he’s in better standing.

For now, finances are tight. Vest is trying to work overtime, and is asking for extensions on other bills until his paychecks are back to normal.

“It’s on me. This is my debt,” he said. “But I just feel like I’m stuck with something that I shouldn’t be stuck with.”

Student Debt by State

Percentage of Graduates with Debt and Average Debt of those with Loans, by State —
Class of 2016
SOURCE: The Institute for College Access and Success
Staff graphic