Sylvia Zukowski only works two jobs now, down from the four she had when she returned to college for a second undergraduate degree.
After her first time through Illinois Wesleyan University, the 28-year-old turned her business degree into a consultant's job in Chicago. But the career didn't work out, and she returned to IWU to study social studies so she can teach history.
Zukowski, the daughter of Polish immigrants from Carpentersville, is a first-generation college student who has taken out $90,000 in student loans despite cashing in her 401(k) to keep the amount manageable. Repayment will start mere weeks after she graduates this year, even though she doesn't have a job lined up.
The average American who carries college debt is trudging forward under about $24,000 of it, an American Student Assistance study said as of the first quarter of 2012. While the majority of borrowers are under 30, a significant chunk of the estimated $1 trillion in nationwide student debt is borne by older students. Some 2.2 million loans are held by those over age 60, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Student debt now lurks on the horizon for students of all ages, and it's a challenge for older or returning students who either need a loan or want to pay them. For Zukowski, approval for her newer loans was harder to come by because of how much she'd borrowed and her previous education.
"I don't necessarily have any more anxiety over (loans), but I definitely did throughout this process," Zukowski said. "Getting student loans is sometimes a lot more difficult than people think once you're a returning student."
For Zukowski, one principle above all others guided her borrowing: Don't do it unless absolutely necessary. Cashing out her retirement contributions was better than taking out a loan, she said.
Sallie Mae is one of the country's largest suppliers of student loans, and its loan default rate -- about 3.2 percent in September -- has been falling, spokeswoman Nikki Lavoie.
The company tries to work with borrowers to preserve their credit standing and avoid default, and supports reform efforts that would allow student loans to be discharged in bankruptcy -- and option banned since 1976.
Vicki Sangster, 51, of Decatur, hopes a new career in health information technology will bring steady income to avoid default on the loans she owes. Jobs like managing data and finance for medical institutions are likely to be plentiful and stable, she said
One of eight siblings, she helped her only daughter through school and worked a variety of jobs, including a current part-time gig at UPS, before starting classes at Richland Community College in Decatur.
"I want to get those loans paid back as soon as possible, but I wouldn't say it's worrisome for me, because I'm the type of person who, if I need to pay something, I go get another job," said Sangster, who didn't provide the specific amount of money she owes. "I don't like owing people or being behind. I do what I need to do to make it work."
As of 2010, the default rate at Richland was 13.9 percent, down from 17.2 percent the previous year. It's never gone higher than 18 percent.
Donna Curtis of Decatur also is at Richland, with a goal of becoming a registered nurse at age 50. It's a big change from a previous career at GTE in Bloomington, where she presided over the closure of two offices before she was laid off herself in 1992.
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