Student loan woes put dreams on hold

Paul Hellstern for NBC News Digital / Today
Karla Gourley, a nurse, has put further studies on hold because the interest rate on Stafford loans are set to increase to 6.8 percent this summer. She and her son, Clayton McEwen, live in Edmond, Oklahoma.

She loves her job as a nurse and makes a pretty good living at it, but Karla Gourley’s dream is to become a nurse practitioner.

It’s a step up that Gourley figures would increase her current salary of $55,000 by as much as $30,000, while giving her more freedom to pursue the kind of health care work she loves.

She’s putting that dream on hold, for now.

Gourley, 36, is worried that interest rates on the subsidized Stafford loans that she had planned to rely on for her bachelor’s degree in nursing will double unless Congress intervenes. That would add to the already daunting cost of going back to school.

“I’m going to wait until they decide what they’re going to do,” said Gourley, who currently works with lung cancer patients at a hospital in Oklahoma City.

The news this week that interest rates on newly issued government-subsidized Stafford loans could rise to 6.8 percent, from 3.4 percent, is just the latest worry for many Americans who are already weighing the burden of debt against the expected payoff of a higher education. 

“It’s the one major student loan-related issue that’s risen up,” said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of, a subsidiary of jobs site that lays out options for tuition aid.

For now, raising the interest rates is just one option on the table. In his budget released this week, President Barack Obama also proposed having the interest rates tied to market rates.

Any change in those student loans - currently among the most affordable available - would affect a wide swath of students, including some of the most financially strapped.

About 31 percent of undergraduates relied on government-subsidized Stafford loans to fund at least part of their education in 2011-2012, according to the College Board. About 69 percent of those loan recipients (or their families) had adjusted gross income of under $50,000 a year in 2008 according to Kantrowitz’s latest data.

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The stress over the Stafford loans also is a symptom of broader, growing unease about student loans in general.

Private and government-backed student loan debt has ballooned to around $1 trillion by some measures, as the cost of going to college has risen steadily.

 Meanwhile, easy access to student loans, combined with the weak job market, has left many former students unable to pay off their debt.

The high levels of student debt were even cited this week by Federal Reserve members as one potential threat to household spending.

Despite the high costs, the percentage of Americans enrolling in higher education has continued to rise. Experts say that makes sense, since there’s also plenty of evidence that it’s still worth it to get a college degree.

A batch of government data released earlier this month showed that people with college degrees are still earning more than their less-educated peers.

A separate analysis of government data, released by the Economic Policy Institute earlier this week, also found that unemployment rates for young college grads are much lower than for young high school graduates who are furthering their education. Still, both groups are facing higher rates of joblessness than before the economy soured in late 2007.

Gourley said the uncertainty over interest rates is another example of how little control she feels she will have over education costs.

That’s got her wondering if she should just try to pay for her training out of pocket. To do that, the mother of three would probably have to take nine years – instead of three – to complete her training. That would mean she’d have to delay her goal of retiring by age 62.

 “That puts me closer to 70,” she said.

Gourley also has to consider how much student loan debt she and her husband may have to take on for her 17-year-old son, who is currently a junior in high school. The family has saved $8,200 for his education, but unless he gets a scholarship or other grants she may need to take out as much as $30,000 in loans for him.

Gourley already is setting aside money for her three-year-old and four-year-old daughters. Like many Americans, she thinks an education will be key to their success, despite the daunting cost.

“With my kids, I feel they most absolutely will have to have a degree, or have some sort of vocational technical training or have some sort of skilled trade,” she said. “The days of our fathers or grandfathers are gone.”