Oct. 25, 2011— -- Two-thirds of all college students now graduate with debt, and owe an average of $24,000, as student loans are quickly becoming the only way many Americans can afford a college education.
As a result, thousands of young people -- who are also facing high unemployment -- are forced to tackle mountains of debt immediately after graduating, and many are uncertain about their futures.
Shannon Johnson, who has been a lawyer at a small, family-owned firm in North Dakota for two years, said she owes more than $150,000 from her undergraduate degree and law school.
"Because of my choice to attend college and law school, I live every day paycheck to paycheck and am forced to rely on credit cards to get by," she said. "I don't feel like I will ever be able to get to a better place, buy a home or start a family."
Others are wondering if going to college was worth the cost.
"I cannot find a well paying job," said Robin Snyder of Perkasie, Pa. "I equate it to the housing market crash -- I now owe more on my education than it's worth."
The total U.S. student loan debt is quickly approaching the $1 trillion mark, and last year it surpassed credit cards as the highest debt that Americans carry. That is in part because the cost of education has skyrocketed in the past 30 years, up 900 percent since 1978.
Shockingly, one of the biggest jumps in college costs came in the last decade. According to CollegeBoard, tuition and fees at four-year public colleges and universities increased 5.6 percent each year beyond the rate of general inflation.
CollegeBoard also reported that costs are rising year to year. Published in-state tuition, fees and room and board averaged at $16,140 in the 2010-11 school year -- up 6.1 percent from the year before.
"There is no question that really, across the board, almost any variable you want to measure, this generation is feeling the brunt of this storm more than any other," said Ron Brownstein, editorial director of National Journal. "These young people are feeling the difficulty of getting their careers started really more than any other generation of workers."
The unemployment rate for people under 30 is 13 percent.
"'Just sign here on the dotted line' are the easiest words to hear and to justify yourself when your goal of college is just a signature away," said Tiffany Kittle of Savannah, Ga. "I told myself that once I graduated I would be able to find a good job and these loans would take no time to pay off. However, two years after graduating, the job that I had was the same job I had while attending college ... working in a bar."
Young adults across the nation are facing many of the same issues because of the debt they carry. Not only is it a burden to make the payments each month, but it is also becoming problematic for many young people to find good paying jobs and move on and out of their parents' homes. The Census Bureau recently released figures showing that 14.2 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds lived with their parents in 2011, a 25 percent increase from before the recession began.
"I have $68,992.32 [in debts] and have been stressing to find a job and also had to move back home with my parents," said Joe McGrath Jr. of Hatboro, Pa., one of many who are living back at home. "It has not been easy. I have been stressed out, upset, and unable to sleep."
Some college grads report that they are having trouble getting loans, including ones to buy a new home.
"My wife and I are expecting our first child in May and we are trying to buy our first house," said Matthew Puls from Lake Jackson, Texas. "My lender told me that my student loan debt may cause some problems with my home loan. I am a teacher and my wife is a teacher's aide."
President Obama is expected to announce new plans for federal loans later today to help graduates with their debt, but many feel as if there is no way out.
"It's frustrating that there's nothing you can do about it," said Kara Seaton of New Haven, Conn. "I don't have the money to pay it off. I'm stuck in this holding pattern."