By SUE SHELLENBARGER
Between the ages of 18 and 22, Jodi Romine took out $74,000 in student loans to help finance her business-management degree at Kent State University in Ohio. What seemed like a good investment will delay her career, her marriage and decision to have children.
Romine's $900-a-month loan payments eat up 60% of the paycheck she earns as a bank teller in Beaufort, S.C., the best job she could get after graduating in 2008. Her fiancé Dean Hawkins, 31, spends 40% of his paycheck on student loans. They each work more than 60 hours a week. He teaches as well as coaches high-school baseball and football teams, studies in a full-time master's degree program, and moonlights weekends as a server at a restaurant. Romine, now 26, also works a second job, as a waitress. She is making all her loan payments on time.
They can't buy a house, visit their families in Ohio as often as they would like or spend money on dates. Plans to marry or have children are on hold, says Romine. "I'm just looking for some way to manage my finances."
High school's Class of 2012 is getting ready for college, with students in their late teens and early 20s facing one of the biggest financial decisions they will ever make.
Total U.S. student-loan debt outstanding topped $1 trillion last year, according to the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and it continues to rise as current students borrow more and past students fall behind on payments. Moody's Investors Service says borrowers with private student loans are defaulting or falling behind on payments at twice prerecession rates.
Most students get little help from colleges in choosing loans or calculating payments. Most pre-loan counseling for government loans is done online, and many students pay only fleeting attention to documents from private lenders. Many borrowers "are very confused, and don't have a good sense of what they've taken on," says Deanne Loonin, an attorney for the National Consumer Law Center in Boston and head of its Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project.
More than half of student borrowers fail to max out government loans before taking out riskier private loans, according to research by the nonprofit Project on Student Debt. In 2006, Barnard College, in New York, started one-on-one counseling for students applying for private loans. Students borrowing from private lenders dropped 74% the next year, says Nanette DiLauro, director of financial aid. In 2007, Mount Holyoke College started a similar program, and half the students who received counseling changed their borrowing plans, says Gail W. Holt, a financial-services official at the Massachusetts school. San Diego State University started counseling and tracking student borrowers in 2010 and has seen private loans decline.
The implications last a lifetime. A recent survey by the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys says members are seeing a big increase in people whose student loans are forcing them to delay major purchases or starting families.
Looking back, Romine wishes she had taken only "a bare minimum" of student loans. She paid some of her costs during college by working part time as a waitress. Now, she wishes she had worked even more. Given a second chance, "I would never have touched a private loan—ever," she says.
Romine hopes to solve the problem by advancing her career. At the bank where she works, a former supervisor says she is a hard working, highly capable employee. "Jodi is doing the best she can," says Michael Matthews, a Beaufort, S.C., bankruptcy attorney who is familiar with Romine's situation. "But she will be behind the eight-ball for years."
Private student loans often carry uncapped, variable interest rates and aren't required to include flexible repayment options. In contrast, government loans offer fixed interest rates and flexible options, such as income-based repayment and deferral for hardship or public service.
Steep increases in college costs are to blame for the student-loan debt burden, and most student loans are now made by the government, says Richard Hunt, president of the Consumer Bankers Association, a private lenders' industry group. Many private lenders encourage students to plan ahead on how to finance college, so "your eyes are open on what it's going to cost you and how you will manage that," says a spokeswoman for Sallie Mae, a Reston, Va., student-loan concern. Federal rules implemented in 2009 require lenders to make a series of disclosures to borrowers, so that "you are made aware multiple times before the loan is disbursed" of various lending options, the spokeswoman says.
Both private and government loans, however, lack "the most fundamental protections we take for granted with every other type of loan," says Alan Collinge, founder of StudentLoanJustice.org, an advocacy group. When borrowers default, collection agencies can hound them for life, because unlike other kinds of debt, there is no statute of limitations on collections. And while other kinds of debt can be discharged in bankruptcy, student loans must still be paid barring "undue hardship," a legal test that most courts have interpreted very narrowly.
Deferring payments to avoid default is costly, too. Danielle Jokela of Chicago earned a two-year degree and worked for a while to build savings before deciding to pursue a dream by enrolling at age 25 at a private, for-profit college in Chicago to study interior design. The college's staff helped her fill out applications for $79,000 in government and private loans. "I had no clue" about likely future earnings or the size of future payments, which ballooned by her 2008 graduation to more than $100,000 after interest and fees.
She couldn't find a job as an interior designer and twice had to ask lenders to defer payments for a few months. After interest plus forbearance fees that were added to the loans, she still owes $98,000, even after making payments for most of five years, says Jokela, 32, who is working as an independent contractor doing administrative tasks for a construction company.
By the time she pays off the loans 25 years from now, she will have paid $211,000. In an attempt to build savings, she and her husband, Mike, 32, a customer-service specialist, are selling their condo. Renting an apartment will save $600 a month. Jokela has given up on her hopes of getting an M.B.A., starting her own interior-design firm or having children. "How could I consider having children if I can barely support myself?" she says.
This story first appeared on WSJ.com.