Higher education can open up a wealth of opportunities. A college degree can make it easier to secure a high-paying job and pave the way toward further education, such as graduate school—a necessary step in becoming a therapist or other health care professional. But the potential rewards of a four-year university degree come at a cost, often a staggering one.
College tuition costs have vastly increased over the past few decades. According to Missouri debt statistics from College Board, a college student in the late 1980s could expect to pay just over $3,000 for 4 years of tuition at a public university. But today, 4 years of tuition at a public university cost around $10,000. Note this figure only includes tuition, not books, board, and other necessary expenses, which may double or even triple your projected expenses.
Private universities, of course, cost far more. And these numbers rise each year, faster than inflation. This means wage increases don’t account for the higher cost of college, and many students are left with more debt than they can easily (or realistically) pay off.
Student loan debt can certainly impact your financial future, but it can take a toll on your emotional well-being, too.
STUDENT LOAN STATISTICS
While many students seek grants and apply for scholarships to attend college, not everyone qualifies for grants or can afford to spend time chasing down multiple scholarships. What’s more, plenty of hopeful students find that the cost of college is still prohibitive, even with these other types of aid. So, lacking the funds to pay for an education, they turn to loans to finance their college years—often without realizing the full cost of these loans.
According to statistics from Pew Research Center, almost half of American adults 30 and younger with a bachelor’s degree or higher have outstanding student loan debt. But even people who don’t complete their education still have to pay back their loans. Among adults under the age of 30, 34 percent have student loan debt, whether they have a degree to show for it or not. Among adults aged 30 to 44, 22 percent still have outstanding student loan debt.
The amount of debt varies widely, especially depending on the type of degree pursued. According to 2016 survey results, a median figure for amount owed, among all borrowers, was $17,000. Among borrowers holding a bachelor’s degree, this figure rose to $25,000, while borrowers with postgraduate degrees reported a median debt of $45,000. About 7 percent of borrowers (or, 1 percent of all American adults) reported owing more than $100,000. Higher debt appears most common among people holding postgraduate degrees.
This survey also found that almost a third of American adults between the ages of 25 and 40 believe the benefits of their college degree(s) are not worth the lifetime expense of paying it off.
HOW DEBT AFFECTS CURRENT STUDENTS
A better understanding of debt’s heavy impact can provide clarity on just why so many students believe the value of their degree doesn’t measure up to the costs incurred.
Not everyone worries about loans coming due while still attending college. More often, these approaching payments seem like a distant concern, one dwarfed by the immediate reality of exams, group projects, and part-time jobs. Many students also don’t fully comprehend the total amount of the monthly payments they’ll eventually need to make, or the number of years required to completely pay off their loans.
Students with greater awareness of the looming burden of debt may feel intense pressure to study as much as possible and earn good grades. They may hope doing well and graduating with honors will help them find a good job right away and stay on top of loan payments. While this goal may have merit, it can nonetheless leave them with little time for self-care, rest, and forming relationships and friendships. Some students may even burn themselves out with volunteer work or participation in activities they hope will appeal to potential employers.
Many students may prefer to avoid thinking about the debt they’ll face. But avoidance doesn’t always help, and it might eventually come out in the form of anxiety and other distress.
It’s also fairly common for students under pressure to neglect their health:
- Students who have to work while attending college often have less time for restful sleep.
- Busy students may end up snacking or choosing fast-food or convenience store meals because they don’t have time to prepare more nutritious, balanced meals.
- Spending the majority of their time studying and working leaves students with little time for physical activity, socializing, or relaxation, important factors in physical and emotional wellness.
These challenges can trigger even more serious concerns. Students under a lot of pressure, especially those who already struggle to adequately meet their physical or emotional needs, may have a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.
HOW STUDENT LOAN DEBT CAN DECREASE QUALITY OF LIFE
The significance of the debt burden tends to hit, for many borrowers, once they’ve graduated from college and made it through the 6-month grace period. Some students manage to secure a good job, perhaps one that pays well and offers benefits like health insurance. This can help relieve some debt-related anxieties.
In a best-case scenario, someone finds a position in their ideal field, earns promotions, and eventually sees their salary increase over time. The ability to make monthly student loan payments and still have enough money left to live a comfortable life is ideal, but it’s not a common scenario.
STUDENT LOANS AND SUICIDE
It’s not uncommon for people with a lot of student loan debt to have a hard time talking about their financial worries. Many people simply struggle to open up about financial issues in general. But others might associate debt with a sense of failure or shame. This can make it difficult to reach out for professional support from therapists or financial counselors.
Avoidance of the problem doesn’t lead to improvement. It often makes the problem worse. Borrowers struggling to pay off student loan debt may come to believe they’ll never get ahead and feel hopeless about their financial future. For many, a bleak financial outlook translates to a bleak outlook overall.
Student Loan Planner, a financial coaching website, surveyed 829 members of their mailing list in 2019. According to their results, one out of every 15 people paying off student loan debt had considered suicide as a result of their debt. The results also suggested student loan debt plays some part in around 9 percent of deaths among young professionals who die by suicide.
The survey also found evidence to suggest borrowers with higher levels of debt are more likely to consider suicide: Just over 11 percent of borrowers who owe between $80,000 and $150,000 report contemplating suicide.
A final finding: Nearly 6 percent of those who replied to the survey knew someone whose student loan debt factored into their death by suicide.
Student loan debt is a serious concern among American adults. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or distressed by your debt, consider reaching out to a therapist for support. A therapist can’t help you resolve your debt. But they can offer compassion without judgment and help you address related mental health symptoms, enabling you to feel more capable of tackling debt in a productive way.