Students Tell Their Tales of Debt

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Kathleen BuckinghamPreston DavisMichael McCormakKelly Mcgowa

Click on each of the four photographs above to hear from the students, Kathleen Buckingham, Preston Davis, Michael McCormack, and Kelly McGowan.

Nastasia Peteuil, who paid very little for her college education in France, was shocked by how much students in this country are borrowing and by the crushing financial pressures this creates.

While taking graduate journalism courses at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst last spring, she persuaded four classmates to narrate their personal stories, which she documented on film in four short profiles.

What makes Peteuil’s profiles so powerful is that they convey, in real time, how these young adults begin to realize what their debt will mean to their lives and career choices.

Squared Away has written about the financial consequences of college loans after  graduation – on buying one’s first house, on retirement, and even on graduates’ love lives.

But, as Peteuil has dramatized, the consequences begin prior to graduation day.


Act first, think later. Welcome to the new world.


Seeing the young human face on all of this student debt was really an eye-opener. Such tremendous financial stress at such an early age! Parents of kids nearing college age and high school guidance counselors really ought to be looking at this … and colleges as well! Does it have to be this expensive?

David W Haartz

Much has been written about the student debt problem. The problem will only get bigger unless a concerted effort is made to educate potential students about making informed decisions about ways to minimize debt.

Our niece graduated a year ago with $60,000 of debt. Her parents had no clue. I asked her how she planned to pay it back. “I hadn’t thought about that, maybe over the next 40 years.” Our oldest grandson will graduate next year with a degree in electrical engineering and no student debt. He made some wise decisions, like not going to his first choice college as an out-of-state student, when he could go to his 2nd choice college in a neighboring state that had a reciprocal agreement with his state on tuition. Also his Dad worked in the neighboring state and he got credit on his tuition for the taxes his Dad paid to that neighboring state. That saved $72,000 of tuition money. Second, he finished up his 2nd year in a summer internship with a large company that paid him a 4 figure weekly salary. He worked as a project engineer. Third, he got a scholarship. Fourth, 4 years ago I introduced him to the stock market with what I called the “stock market challenge”. He and his two year younger brothers both have their own stock market portfolios which they have tapped for some of their expenses. Finally small contributions from family and granddad. Grandson number two has just finished up his 1st year and with the help of an industrial job this summer is on his way to debt free education. He too is going to his 2nd choice college which gave him a large scholarship.

The key in my opinion is to provide financial education starting int the 9th grade. My impression is that the financial education that students get today is focused on how to get a student loan, not how to go through college without student loans.


Parents need the education first. Tell your precious child, NO, you can’t go to any school you want. NO, you can’t take out unlimited loans. Spend only what you have and can afford.

Students – learning the problem of instant gratification must live with the consequences. It’s a terrible lesson to learn with money. Not everyone gets the trophy, like little league and soccer- you are not so special after all.

Paul Brustowicz

I attended college and grad school in the 60’s and 70’s. Scholarships, parents, work, and a few loans paid for it.
I can’t believe how exorbitant college tuition has become.

Aren’t there small colleges out there that provide good educations at reasonable costs? This will encourage me to add more to my grandchildren’s college funds.


How many banks would loan penniless, near-zero-income students $100,000 if the State did not backstop and ruthlessly enforce its parasitic, exploitative “student loan” programs? Answer: none.

The consequence if the tyrannical State ceased to enforce the debt-serfdom of Student Loans: the Education Cartel would collapse in a odoriferous heap, and the banking Aristocracy would be stripped of a highly profitable State-run business.” —

Also see:


I imagine that the videos don’t have too many tales of success. The student loan system is broken because employers require, generally, a college degree and the colleges know this.

I’m in my 40s and am finally paying down the law school loans that I took out in the 1990s, when I was in my early 20s. The biggest problem, in my view, is the rate on graduate school loans. I am paying 8+%. It’s astronomical on 100,000 and by the time I am done, I will have borrowed $100,000 three times. And I’m a lucky one because I’ve been able to make payments each month.


Forbes Magazine publishes an annual “Tax Misery Index.” France almost always ranks at the very top of the list as the highest (harshest) taxing industrialized nations in the world. So, even though post-secondary education is much cheaper there, the nation is paying a heavy toll (for that and other policies). There are no free lunches – someone is paying so that their college students can graduate debt-free.

As for managing the cost of college, we contributed to a 529-Plan every year so that (18 years later) when the time for him to go to college, the total of the 529-Plan plus grants, scholarships, etc. and income from his small side jobs, resulted in him graduating debt-free.

There’s much blame to spread around for these high college costs: (1) parents, for not telling their kids “No, I won’t pay for you to go to that expensive school out of state”, (2) kids, for not going to the local university or community college (at least for the first 2 years), (3) universities, for turning colleges into an “experience” rather than focusing on education, and (4) all the above, for not helping the kid choose a career field that will actually pay the bills.

With proper choices, there would be no “crushing financial pressures” created for these new graduates.


Nice that he could earn $1,000 a week while going to school, how many students other than engineering students can earn that kind of money? Very few. And they were lucky that the stock market has been up the last few years, imagine if they were entering school in 2008??? While your story is encouraging, your snarkey attitude is typical of the wealthy ownership class.


    I don’t see this as snarky… It is called being proud for making smart decisions about education, career, and financial matters.

    I have lived this very story. I’m 31 and while I have pity on some of those with these huge debt loads from college loans… I keep them to a minimum by making smart choices.

    I went to Community College while living at home and helping take care of the farm for my parents.

    I worked 2 part-time jobs as well and saved up money for going on to a 2nd rate but high class 4-year engineering school. Most engineering students know it never can be done in 4 years. So I spent 3 years there on top of my 3 years at Community College. The 3rd year at CC, I took only 2 classes to work more and save money for the transition to the University.

    I worked several steady jobs while studying at the University and took up Internship opportunities during the summers. Through my hard work, I obtained 3 job offers all of which were pretty lousy… however, a job was a job and I love my career in engineering so I took one of them that appealed to me.

    7 years later and after starting a mid-level career with a new employer, I only have a little debt left on my mortgage and the misc day-to-day expenses…

    I invest in the markets weekly and keep an eye on my spending levels and live for the next day to have fun and enjoy all that God has given my the ability to achieve through my hard work.

    I’m doing VERY WELL and feel accomplished…but I’ve yet to start a family or have children and time is passing me by… but it also scares me to see the choices that kids make these days…really getting themselves in trouble / shooting themselves in the foot.

    Be smart: weigh out the costs and benefits of any decision before you head down that path. The financial aspect of it might be too astronomical to be worth the benefit. If it is something you love and are passionate about you don’t need schooling to work in that area. Do it on your own time and create your own business from your passion.


    Snarky? Wealthy ownership class? My son works in a restaurant as a line cook and can readily make $1,000 per week. It is nasty work and pretty boring but he has had no problem saving money to pay for his community college tuition. He has earned so much that he can’t get financial aid – which tells another tale.

    Too many college students see going to college as a rite of passage. Well, if you are born wealthy it might be the equivalent of the old European Grand Tour – but for most, it is their first big financial decision. In reality it is an investment decision. It is 4 years of your life and an opportunity cost of $100K and up not counting any tuition costs.

    There is a reason why there are two commandments about the evils of envy…


I don’t see this as snarky…It is being proud for making smart decisions about education, career, and financial matters.

Some of it was decent decision-making, some of it was good luck. He was lucky that he had parents that could help him navigate; not every child gets a financially literate parent. It always amuses me that people fail to recognize that even if you have intelligence and determination that luck plays a HUGE part in your success or failure, beginning from our inability to choose things like our aptitudes or who we get to help us in our lives.

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