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.
She stayed home to raise her kids, eventually remarrying Larry, who returned to school himself in 1978 after retiring from the U.S. Navy.
"I said, 'I don't want to work at Target the rest of my life,' and he said if something happened to him that he wanted me to have something to rely on," she said. She's taken out $7,000 student loans to help pay down her tuition costs of about $30,000.
Curtis said the traditional model of employment -- go to school, get a lifetime career in one place, and then retire -- has been changed by the behavior of companies and the economy. The scarce number of high-paying jobs in Decatur makes it likely she'll move after she completes her education, she said.
"Nobody stays in the same place anymore," Curtis said. "Here in Decatur, you work in a factory or you get minimum wage jobs. People can't afford to support their family on minimum wage jobs."
Larry moved back to Decatur after Hurricane Katrina wiped out his home and his livelihood in Louisiana. He'd become a registered nurse himself after he left the Navy, paying $300 per semester tuition at Arkansas State University and learning from instructors who were mostly younger than he was.
His retirement benefits will mean his wife can afford to repay large amounts quickly, he said, but that isn't an option for everybody.
In fact, he said there are few practical options for those who can't find a job or can't make enough money to repay the loans. "The only way you can get out of (them) is to die," Curtis said.
Richland advises its students through the loan process, said spokeswoman Lisa Gregory.
"While we continually strive to appropriately advise students about the loan repayment obligations through the financial aid and degree completion process, it is the unfortunate reality that sometimes students are not successful," Gregory said. "For those many students who are successful in the completion process, the area economy may not have job opportunities available to them. At times, default is a result."
In addition to your school's financial aid office, information about or relief from student debt is available at:
-- Project on Student Debt (loan limits): http://projectonstudentdebt.org/files/pub/2012-13_loan_terms.pdf
-- National Consumer Law Center: www.studentloanborrowerassistance.org/
-- U.S. Department of Education (loans and Pell grants): http://www2.ed.gov/fund/grants-college.html
-- American Student Assistance (nonprofit): http://www.asa.org/basics/default.aspx
-- Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: http://www.consumerfinance.gov/students/repay/
-- National Student Loan Database System: http://www.nslds.ed.gov/nslds_SA/
Following are the student loan default rates for loans that came due between Oct. 1, 2008, and Sept. 30, 2009, and went into default before Sept. 30, 2011:
University of Illinois-Urbana 2.5%
Illinois Wesleyan University 2.5%
Bradley University 2.8%
Illinois State University 3%
University of Illinois-Chicago 4.2%
Eastern Illinois University 4.8%
Southern Illinois -- Edwardsville 6.6%
Northern Illinois University 7.4%
Southern Illinois-Carbondale 8.1%
University of Illinois-Springfield 8.5%
Western Illinois University 10.7%
Illinois Valley Community College 13.2%
Chicago State University 15.2%
Heartland Community College 16.6%
Parkland College 18.1%
Illinois Central College 24.7%
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education
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