HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - Wearing a cap and gown and crossing the stage at a university is a moment of pride that brings a sense of security of earning a spot in the workplace. Millions of Americans feel the career they enter will support them beginning life as an adult.
The graduation can also leave a burden on the backs of graduates much heavier than the backpacks that carried books across campus.
A financial aid strategist and the student loan director at the University of Southern Mississippi gave insight on how to steer clear and break away from debt.
"They [students] need to realize that this is an investment. Loans are not bad, but they just must realize that it will have to be repaid," said David Williamson, Financial Aid Director at U.S.M.
It’s a grim reality for millions of Americans as they enter adulthood. The bill is due for the education, excitement and experience of college.
“According to Nerd Wallet, Americans are $1.6 trillion in student loan deficit,” said Angela Howze, a Financial Aid Strategist in the Pine Belt.
Forty-five million borrowers across the country fall victim to the debt, which is now the largest deficit in America, according to Student Loan Hero, an independent financial website. Williamson said he is not surprised.
"The national average is $33,000," Williamson said. "Here at Southern Miss, it's about $23,000."
"It’s free money. Then, they give you this refund check, and you go buy phones, computers, and the latest clothes not thinking about the consequences of your actions," Howze said.
"It doesn’t hit you until at the end when you graduate and then the servicer starts contacting you," Williamson agreed.
"They can garnish your wages, levy your income tax, and put a lean on your property," Howze said. "That’s no way to live."
Williamson admits filling out the forms to even get financial aid can be overwhelming.
“It is an automated process now," he said. “It’s online, and when you are clicking and doing things on line, you tend to forget how much you have borrowed.”
“Any parents want to see their child graduate with a college education,” Howze said. “When the child maxes out with student loan debt, then the parent will come and get the parent plus loan which puts them in student loan prison."
She then gave ways to "break free" of the anxiety of debt.
“The first step is look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I have this debt and I must pay it because the government is going to get their funds back under any means necessary,’” Howze said.
Howze advises borrowers to explore every option and begin with a repayment plan that suits the former student best. The income driven loan aligns with the borrowers gross income.
"There are payment options out there available for them, but they don’t know where to find them," Howze said.
Next, she suggests the borrower find out if his or her career path qualifies for loan forgiveness. Educators and those who are employed in the public sector have the opportunity to qualify for forgiveness.
Howze said she's encountered many people deciding whether to pay their loans or pay for their children's necessities.
For those who haven't entered the realm of repayment yet, both Howze and Williamson agreed on the top factors to reduce potential debt.
"You need to have a plan before you are at the age to enroll in college," Williamson said.
Both said the plan should start as far back as middle school.
"Really vet the colleges out to see what that total cost would be," Howze said. "Stay at home to alleviate cost of living and cafeteria expenses."
“At Southern Miss, we try to be as transparent as possible," Williamson said. “It’s just an estimate, but it gives them an idea so they can maybe do some planning.”
Howze said millions of dollars were left on the table by Americans that could have helped with expenses. She said same scholarships to focus on come from scoring high on the ACT test.
“Let’s start planning for your ACT," Howze said. “With a gold merit award, you can get more than $40,000 in scholarships. If we push our students in the right directions that would make a great difference.”
The biggest takeaway to alleviate student loan deficit was to instill financial literacy in students at an early age.
As the cost of tuition rises, the availability of grants dwindles. Students are encouraged to study exactly what borrowing entails.
"This is as an investment. Be smart with your investment," Williamson said.
“Face your fears, and get started because if not, it’s going to wreak havoc on your everyday life,” Howze said.
Howze offers in-depth consultations for those needing help navigating through repayment. She has authored a book titled, “Breaking Free from Financial Aid Prison.”