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(NECN: Peter Howe, Boston) - This autumn, some 21.8 million students are expecting to be enrolling in college across the country – up 42 percent from 2000, according to the U.S. education department – and they are also piling up colossal debt.
"It's terrifying. It's absolutely terrifying, especially with the prospect of going to graduate school," said Grant Ryan, a Hingham, Mass.-native now living in Dorchester who’s a senior at the University of Massachusetts at Boston -- and is already $30,000 in debt pursuing his degree in psychology and communications studies. "Those aren’t fields that have jobs right out of undergrad," said Ryan, who is looking at becoming a college student-relations official someday. "So going to graduate school and thinking about accumulating even more debt is a scary thing."
Wednesday found Ryan at the UMass-Boston edition of Project Credit Smarts, a Massachusetts program that moves around the state trying to help students get smarter about managing student loans and more. "I have a student debt looming, so I just wanted to learn how to manage everything now and offset the debt that's going to occur later on" Ryan said.
What experts like state Consumer Affairs undersecretary Barbara Anthony tell students: Don't make your student loans worse by getting too many credit cards -- or loading them up with debt and late fees. "The debt you incur while you're in college can stay with you for the rest of your life," Anthony told attendees at Wednesday’s session.
Today students graduating from college in Massachusetts have piled up -- on average -- $27,000 in debt, although it's becoming more and more common to hear about students who are carrying over $100,000 in debt by the time they get a diploma. And while Americans generally have succeeded in working down their debt levels since the financial meltdown of 2008, on student loans the picture has gone exactly the opposite direction, passing the symbolically freighted $1 trillion level last year.
State Division of Banks commissioner David Cotney said: "It is now more than the combined debt of all credit cards in this country. It's more than the combined debt of all auto loans in this country."
"I don't think that the level of financial literacy education among students," Anthony said, "has matched the growth in student loan debt."
Agreed Cotney: "Using that debt responsibly -- and all debt responsibly -- can help ensure your financial future."
A sign that maybe students have really been getting that message: As of last year, according to student loan giant Sallie Mae, 35 percent of college students had a credit card, down from 42 percent in 2010, an indication of possibly tightened credit standards by banks and card issuers but also an indication more students are waiting to get trapped with plastic. Those included 21 percent of freshmen, 28 percent of sophomores, 38 percent of juniors and 60 percent of seniors.
With videographer David Jacobs