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Grad considers: Is college degree worth the debt?

Sydney Sodergren Tinley Park recently graduated from AugustanCollege Rock Island.  |  DonnVickroy~Sun-Times Media

Sydney Sodergren, of Tinley Park, recently graduated from Augustana College in Rock Island. | Donna Vickroy~Sun-Times Media

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Student debt is the talk of the nation, especially with interest rates on federally subsidized Stafford Loans set to double on July 1, from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.

As Congress struggles to address the issue — a Senate bill to prevent the rate increase stalled last week and a Republican-introduced alternative also failed — college students and graduates across the nation are bracing for the worst.

Here in Illinois, the average amount of debt being carried by 2011 graduates with student loans is more than $26,000, according to The Project on Student Debt. Combine that with a high 8.8 unemployment rate among young college graduates and it’s not surprising that some are questioning the value of a college education.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, between 2000–01 and 2010–11, prices for undergraduate tuition, room and board at public institutions rose 42 percent, while costs at private, not-for-profit institutions rose 31 percent, after adjusted for inflation.

We decided to let the graduates speak for themselves.

Today, we introduce Sydney Sodergren, 22, of Tinley Park. She recently earned a degree from Augustana College in Rock Island. She has been lucky in that she was able to find work as a paralegal this summer. She originally planned to go on to medical school, but is now rethinking that path. Like two-thirds of all college graduates, she has substantial student loan debt.

We asked Sydney about the burden of that debt and what she believes is the value of her college education. (If you are a college student or recent graduate and would like to comment on this topic, please contact me at
dvickroy@southtownstar.com.)

Q: There has been much discussion lately about the expense of college. Do you feel the degree was worth the cost?

A: Overall, I believe that the benefits of college have outweighed the expenses. I have grown in ways I would not have been able to otherwise. Over the past four years I was able to learn not only information in the classroom but also a lot about myself and many other life lessons along the way, not to mention the lifelong friendships and networking circle I gained.

Q: How has college changed you?

A: Not only did I grow older over the past four years, I have grown wiser. Freshman year, the thought of having to adapt to a completely new environment and make new friends terrified me, but now, looking back, I feel that simple tasks like these taught me the most valuable lessons. I learned from common tasks like having to “fend for myself” and also having to be wise and distinguish the good crowd from the bad crowd to avoid losing focus on the main reason I was attending college.

Q: Are you a different person — philosophically — than you were when you enrolled as a freshman?

A: I feel that I have more respect for others around me and I now understand how people’s actions differ and the reasons why people choose the actions they do. As I’ve grown I feel that I am no longer afraid to ask questions or admit being incorrect, which I believe is a crucial part of philosophical thinking and also growing and learning overall.

Q: Are you a better thinker?

A: I would say that I am definitely a more well-rounded thinker. I have learned not to just accept the first conclusion I reach, rather to explore more possibilities and try and deduct multiple answers.

Q: How do you feel about current measures in the legislature to address student debt concerns?

A: I would agree that measures need to be taken; there is no reason many students are coming out of undergraduate college with six-figure loans. The United States is the only country with such terrific amounts of student debt. On top of that, the interest rates loan companies are charging are just ridiculous.

Q: Do students have too much debt?

A: Yes, it’s a really unfortunate situation because today the tables have shifted. Going to college is now a societal expectation rather than a luxury wealthy families provide to their children, as it was years ago. Therefore, the fact that students are basically “forced” to attend college in order to have a hope of landing a decent job but are also subjected to such high amounts of debt is a bit contradictory.

Q: Is that something that worries you?

A: Attending a private liberal arts college, our financial assistance program was very kind and officials did a lot to work with students and families to make college affordable. This being said, the “basic tuition” is also significantly higher than that of most state schools. Although, I was grateful enough to have over half of my tuition paid for by grants and scholarships, I still graduated with a hefty chunk of student loans. I believe it is something that worries my parents more than me; I’ve basically accepted that there are thousands of students across the nation who have graduated with as much or more student debt than me, and if people have managed to pay it off, then there has got to be a way.

Q: Are you positive about your job outlook?

A: I was fortunate enough to be offered a position as a biotech paralegal assistant and be able to start right after graduation. Although this is opposite of the road I intended to take, I am able to use the skills I gained in college, and I am excited about the opportunities the position might bring me. It is very rewarding to finally be able to put schooling to “good use” and know that my degree has a direct impact on what I’m doing, but I know many of my classmates are less fortunate and have been struggling to find employment and are still working minimum-wage retail jobs as college graduates.

Q: Do you think the economy will improve?

A: Yes ... I don’t know. I hope so.

For more information on student debt, visit projectonstudentdebt.org and studentdebtcrisis.org.



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