Picking out an intricate melody on his classical guitar, Brandon Crafts looks across the quad of Southern Oregon University, notes his $6,000 student loan accumulated halfway through his freshman year, and acknowledges he's headed for major debt by the time he graduates.
"I don't worry about it. There's nothing I can do about it," says Crafts, a music business major. "I'm just letting it accumulate. You take on the debt or you don't go. You hope it will pay for itself if you get a job, but job security is nonexistent. ... I suppose the debt will follow me till I die."
Oregon's ranking in the nation: 21st
Percentage of graduating
seniors with debt in 2010-11
Oregon: 63 percent
Nationwide: 57 percent
Oregon's ranking in the nation: 20th
— Source: Institute for College Access and Success
Graduating in sociology and criminal justice with $30,000 in debt, Viki Brumble, 43, of Wimer, says the jobs she expected to be available have been wiped out by the recession.
"It's absolutely terrifying and depressing," she says. "This country no longer provides affordable higher education. Most other countries, even in the Third World, do. You can't get out of these loans with bankruptcy. How are you going to pay for the home and children?"
As tuitions rise and jobs vaporize, student debt has become a growing burden on the road to a degree.
The average student debt for graduating seniors in 2010-11 was $23,065 nationwide, $25,497 in Oregon.
The percentage of graduates carrying debt was 57 percent nationwide, 63 percent in Oregon.
Looming dark on the horizon is a rate increase in federal student loans — from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent — unless Congress acts before July 1.
"That's worse than raising tuition," Crafts says.
SOU is mounting new efforts to cut off excessive loans and hook students up with relevant, better-paying work to lower debt.
Starting this fall, SOU will offer a Professional Experience and Knowledge program to "engage students in professional, substantive jobs to build professional competency or skill sets that make them more employable," says Max Brooks, SOU career preparation coordinator.
The resume-building, on-campus jobs will pay $10 to $12 an hour, helping students cut down on the amount they borrow, Brooks says.
"They can begin to pay their debts off sooner," he says. "We're asking faculty and staff to think about jobs they can offer and how students can do dream projects."
Many students rode out the recession in college, getting additional degrees to improve job prospects. But now, says SOU Financial Aid Director Peggy Mezger, students are being encouraged to wrap up their bachelor's degree in four years and avoid classes not counted toward degrees.
"This makes a significant difference in how much they borrow," she says.
Students also are being coached on paths to debt forgiveness, such as the military, Peace Corps, teaching in low-income areas and certain public-service careers, Mezger says.
SOU students graduate with a median debt of $19,337, meaning half the students are above that amount and half below, says Di Saunders, director of communications for the Oregon University System.
Eighty-eight percent of SOU students get financial aid. SOU students have a default rate of 3.9 percent, which is fourth in the seven-member state school system, she says.
To help remedy the debt, OUS is now working out an "early warning system" to identify students at risk for over-borrowing. They would be given mandatory debt counseling and "at some point, Higher Ed kicks over-borrowers out of the student loan program."
Debt itself is not the problem, explains Saunders.
"The majority are doing fine at graduation," she says. "The trouble is the debt-to-income ratio. The rule is: Don't borrow more than you make in one year. You don't borrow $50,000 and go into sociology at $18,000 a year."
Under a new federal Income-Based Repayment Plan, psychology senior Lexie Cox will take the option of adjusting her payments to her income, having the underpayment added to the end of the loan. The option will be handy, she says, as her first job is in a temporary pool for admissions at Oregon State University, which could lead to full-time work.
"You can go as low as $50 a month," says Cox, who works at the Commuter Resource Center. "If you don't pay it off in 20 years and you aren't in default, the loan is forgiven."
Political science junior Kyle Ragsdale says his debt will reach $50,000 and "it's a bit unnerving. The interest rate hike is upsetting. I'm 50 percent unsure about getting work. I will do income-based repayment. I tried to go in the military, but they ruled I had too much debt."
Married and the mother of two, Sandy Stack called her $35,000 debt "nerve-wracking," but she'll go the income-based route and expects a well-paying job in the high-demand field of special education.
Psychology sophomore Renee Clark will graduate with no debt because she served in the Army first, and it's paying for her education.
"It's a great program. I'm very appreciative and fortunate," says Clark. "I don't have the stress other students have."
Communications senior Nils Holst, editor of The Siskiyou student newspaper, will graduate in June with $27,000 in debt.
"I'm kind of worried," Holst says. "We have a six-month grace period before payments start. The odds of me finding a job in my field aren't very high. I plan to be a bum and travel as much as I can, then find a job in Portland."
Student Jesse Bossert, 35, who has a master's degree in education and is earning a second bachelor's degree in political science, avoided debt with one simple rule: Work first, earn the money, then go to school.
Bossert advises students to take their time, work while they gain resident status to garner cheaper tuition rates and don't take out a maximum of loans offered — just what you need for the degree. He also takes free online courses on Coursera, winning a certificate that he says employers might value.
"I have friends, one in Princeton, with $100,000 debt and another in med school with a quarter of a million. Me, I'm rare, I know. I will have no college debt. It feels great." (Clarification: Jesse Bossert's comments have been amended for clarity.)
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.