Jake Bemis has a lot on his plate after graduating from college with a communications degree this month.
The University of Northern Iowa senior is getting married in the summer and looking for a full-time job. He will carry into that marriage and job $60,000 in college debt.
“I don’t come from a family full of money and I work a lot jobs,” Bemis, 23, said, explaining how he accumulated his debt, “but it’s all for: ‘in-the-now.’”
Plenty of pending graduates on Iowa college campuses interviewed for an IowaWatch report on college debt and attitudes about finding a job feel the same way about that in-the-now moment. Time to pay the bills will come soon enough.
Problem is, many are not ready to pay.
“I’ve had students (say), ‘I didn’t know I had any loans,’” Julie Dunn, director of financial planning at Loras College in Dubuque, said. Her usual response to that: “Well, yes you do, and here they are, and we will probably need to meet individually to talk about your situation so that you fully understand.”
Last year, 287 of Loras’ 317 graduates – 91 percent – had college debt averaging $31,571, Iowa College Student Aid Commission data show. That is on par with the state’s small colleges and universities. Three of every four graduating from a not-for-profit private college in Iowa in 2013 owed an average $31,497, the data show.
The averages ranged from $8,277 at Divine Word College, a Roman Catholic seminary in Epworth graduating six people, to $40,700 at the University of Dubuque and Buena Vista University, of Storm Lake. At Dubuque, 71 percent of the 304 graduates left school last year with debt, while 89 percent of Buena Vista’s graduates had debt, student aid commission figures reveal.
Six of every 10 students graduating from Iowa’s three public universities in 2013 owed, on average, $28,293 when they picked up their degrees, the data show. Nine of every 10 graduating from the state’s three private for-profit colleges owed an average $23,485. (See chart at the end of the story)
Ryan Fitzpatrick Ashe, who is to graduate from the University of Iowa this month with a degree in cinema and comparative literature and a certificate in entrepreneurial management, is among those conceding recently in interviews for IowaWatch that he needs to figure out how to pay his college-related debt.
Ashe, carrying debt in the $26,000-to-$27,000 range, said he first wants to travel in Europe for a couple of weeks this summer before landing a job. He acknowledges the disadvantage in which he is putting himself. “A lot of employers, you know, when they’re looking for people to hire they’re just kind of like, ‘You know, we need you here this date … when can you start?’” Ashe, 22, originally from Naperville, Illinois, said.
An IowaWatch survey in April of 671 students at Iowa’s three public universities, from where more than half of the state’s students with four-year degrees or above graduate, showed the students evenly split when it comes to worrying about their job prospects after graduating. Half were worried, half were not. The margin of error for that specific question was plus or minus 4.2 percentage points. The survey’s overall margin of error was plus or minus 3.8 percent points.
Those answering included graduate students and students in all four years of undergraduate studies — important because of experts who say students need to be planning careers that help pay off debt throughout college and not just in their senior year. But answers from students in their senior year were similar.
For example, the biggest concern of those worried about getting work after graduation was finding a job in their field of study. Students were less worried about finding a job with good pay, the IowaWatch survey showed, and few thought they could get a job in less than one month.
The common theme among students who said they were not worried about their job prospects is that they already have lined up a job.
DEBT GROWS FOR SOME DESPITE HELP
College debt has accumulated even for students who work and get financial help from their families, interviews at selected campuses in the state revealed.
Bemis has been working three part-time jobs while in college in Cedar Falls and his parents helped pay his tuition. It wasn’t enough. A fifth-year senior, he’s taken direct subsidized, unsubsidized and direct plus loans for about $10,000 each year. With graduation, an $11,000 direct loan his parents took transfers to him.
For now, he’s planning on setting budgets and diving into the search for a full-time job. It’s a process that, at the end of his college studies, has him wondering.
“I appreciate the five years I’ve had here, but I feel like what a lot of employers look for are skills that you don’t really learn in college,” Bemis said. “I know a lot of people who didn’t go to college and are very successful now. They didn’t have to pay that debt like we’re going to have to.”
That might be the case for some but not most. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show median weekly earnings for workers with college degrees exceed the pay of those who do not.
The median weekly income for U.S. workers with a bachelor’s degree was $1,108 in 2013, up significantly from $651 for workers with only a high school diploma. It also was more, by far, that the $727 for workers with some college but no degree and $777 for workers with an associate’s degree, the statistics show.
Moreover, the labor statistics show, the unemployment rate in 2013 diminished greatly with each increasing level of education, from 7 percent for U.S. workers with some college to 4 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree.
Drake University senior Mary Kate Wachtel is taking the broadcast news journalism degree she is to receive this spring to a job as news producer at WDAF, a Kansas City, Missouri, television station. Wachtel received help from her advisor, Professor John Lytle, who is friends with a news anchor at WDAF and who helped her snag an internship at the station the summer after her sophomore year.
“I wouldn’t have gotten that position without Lytle and that’s what’s really kind of helped me,” Wachtel, 22, said. Relying on scholarships, Wachtel said she was able to avoid a large amount of debt. Her Drake classmate, Lauren Horsch, 22, was not as fortunate.
Horsch, a news/Internet and rhetoric double major from New Ulm, Minnesota, owes $23,000 to $24,000 in private loans, plus more in federal loans that she declined to disclose. Her professors have cautioned her against taking a job that pays less than a year’s tuition at Drake.
“At Drake, that’s problematic, considering that we’re almost $40,000 (per year), so it’s really just finding a salary that works,” said Horsch, who in an interesting twist was a student reporter in spring 2013 for a similar IowaWatch report on college student debt and graduating seniors’ job hunts.
MANAGING THE DEBT
Loans are not bad, university and college financial aid advisers say, but students should be deliberate about what they borrow and plan ways to pay it off.
“They should try to only borrow for educational costs such as tuition, room and board or books,” Roberta Johnson, Iowa State University’s director of financial aid, said.
Some of the students interviewed for this IowaWatch report do that, and are ready to move into jobs.
Phillip Truong has lined up a job as a fleet coordinator with Warner Enterprises in Omaha, Nebraska, after graduating from ISU this month with a business degree in supply chain management and minor in management. He said he has about $45,000 in debt and a 10-year plan to pay it off.
Truong, who did not have internships in college and considers himself lucky, heard about the position through career services in the business college. “I just don’t have any money,” he said. “That’s something I knew beforehand: that I was going to have to take out quite a bit (in loans), but I didn’t have any other choice.”
Randal Short said he hopes to become a police officer or paralegal after graduating from William Penn University, in Oskaloosa. He applied for jobs, went through testing for police work and gathered the necessary letters of recommendation.
Short, 22, who left home in Orlando, Florida, to attend William Penn for a degree in pre-law and history, said he graduated with around $4,000 in college debt. “Once I am employed I plan on paying it off rather quickly,” he said.
Russ Gossen, 22, was hoping to land a good job within six months of graduating from Loras College this month because that is when he has to start paying off debt in excess of $15,000. He was not worried.
“Once I start getting bills, I know how to pay a bill,” Gossen, a public relations and media studies major from New Lenox, Ill., said. “I’ve been doing that for four years now.”
Dunn, the financial planning director at Loras, said she receives plenty of emails and phone calls from students who work on plans to manage their debt. “Those that are definitely concerned, those students know that they need to be very serious in their job hunt and work quite hard to find employment,” she said.
THREE APPROACHES TO POST-GRADUATE LIFE
Emily McGinn spent this spring applying for internships that give her a chance to work with children who have autism before she seeks a post-graduate degree. A senior from Madison, Wisconsin, on track to graduate from ISU with a degree in psychology this month, she has $16,000 in debt from subsidized and unsubsidized FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) loans.
An academic recognition award covered some costs, and her parents, grandmother and uncle also chipped in to help pay for her education.
“I have had it so easy compared to so many people who pay their way through school and have to do it on their own,” she said. “I have been able to be a full-time student and not work during the school year.
Even so, she worked during summers as a nanny for a boy with Asperger’s syndrome and volunteered at a pediatric clinic to get experience in her field. She has volunteered at an ISU psychology lab for about a year and a half for research experience and, in summer 2012, traveled to Africa for mission work. She is to return this summer.
McGinn said she is nervous about the internship and debt she expects with graduate school but has relied on advice from ISU’s financial aid office.
Marisa La Greca spent early spring applying for jobs in her field but with no luck.
La Greca, graduating from the UI in Iowa City this month with a degree in Italian and international studies, was trying to get a job at the university’s study abroad office as a peer assistant but also applying at schools for master’s studies.
“Unfortunately, I am finding that a lot of them require experience I don’t have,” she said. La Greca, originally from Elmwood Park, Illinois, is fortunate when it comes to debt. Her family has helped her with college expenses and she has worked for her living expenses.
You need to go to Drake University senior Hillary Johnson for a more daunting situation. Johnson said she has around $80,000 in student loans and slim job prospects after graduation.
“I feel like there are not that many jobs in my area,” Johnson, who is to graduate from Drake this month with a degree in environmental science, said. Most of the jobs in her field, she has learned, are advanced and require a master’s degree.
“I do have an internship now but it is not in my field,” Johnson said. “There is a potential for a part-time job with it afterwards.”
But that debt looms. “I have around $80,000 in debt and it sucks. I am going to have to make minimum payments,” she said. “The minimum payments are going to be pretty high.”
IN THEIR OWN WORDS: GRADUATING SENIORS TALK ABOUT JOB PROSPECTSClick on the yellow icons to see a video of students from six Iowa campuses.
Map By: Lauren Mills/IowaWatch
Here is a link to a May 22, 2014, program during which Iowa Public Radio’s “River to River” program explored this story further.
Linh Ta is a student at the University of Northern Iowa and an IowaWatch reporter, Sarah Rochford is a student at Loras College, Danielle Ferguson is a student at Iowa State University and an Iowa State Daily staff writer. Lyle Muller, Lauren Mills and Inma Mateos of IowaWatch, recent William Penn University graduate Melanie Mackey, and Drake University students Austin Cannon, Emma Wilson and Sarah Fulton contributed to this story. Portions of this story and some of its videos were published by The Telegraph Herald (Dubuque, IA), The Courier (Waterloo-Cedar Falls, IA), the Sioux City Journal and The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA) under IowaWatch’s mission of making its news available free to media partners.