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For some Lodi grads, student loan debt is difficult to manage

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Posted: Saturday, June 2, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 1:05 pm, Tue Jun 5, 2012.

Emily Fant, 25, grew up in Lodi and attended Tokay High School. After graduation in 2005, she spent two years at San Joaquin Delta College, and then transferred to the University of Chattanooga in Tennessee. Fant took out student loans to cover most of her tuition.

Her family banked at Wells Fargo, so Fant took out a series of loans over two semesters, with her mother co-signing.

"In one year I had $40,000 in loans from Wells Fargo and not a clue in the world about what I was getting into," she said in an email.

Fant isn't alone. In California, about 48 percent of college graduates have some student debt. The average debt tally is now over $18,000. That burden can keep students and grads from moving on with their lives.

The federal government has made some changes to keep debt manageable. Colleges and financial aid officials are doing their best to educate students before they sign on the dotted line.

Student loan debt in the United States has grown to more than a trillion dollars. That's more than the nation's credit card debt.

Loans have increased because tuition and fees have gone up tremendously.

Years ago, when tuition was only $2,000 a semester, a 20-percent increase was $400. But as tuition grows, the increases are more substantial, said Hans P. Johnson, a senior fellow with the California Public Policy Institute.

Publicly available grants have increased to meet the need. The University of California and California State University systems reserve one-third of revenue from fee increases for grants for lowand mid-income students. Public colleges are still a relatively good deal, especially for a student who hasn't received funding offers from private schools.

"I tell students, 'Don't take out more than you expect to be able to pay back when you graduate,' and that's hard for people because they don't know," Johnson said.

There are two kinds of loans dragging grads into debt. One is federal loans, usually carrying a lower interest rate. The other kind is private loans from individual banks. These generally have a higher interest rate and are more difficult to defer.

Fant took out both.

Fant gained residency status in Tennessee and filled out an application for federal student aid. She took out another $20,0000 in federal loans. On the day Fant graduated, she was $60,000 in debt and working the same job that filled her days during college. She is an assistant account manager with J. Smith Lanier and Co. in Tennessee.

The payments on those thousands started six months after graduation day. Notices filled her mailbox and email inbox. Minimum payments were more than she could afford.

"My monthly total was right at $600 a month, which is crazy because that is almost one of my paychecks," she said.

She found a way to defer her federal loans until her income increased. She thought she could do the same with her private loans, too — not so. Private loans don't always have alternative repayment options. Fant is stuck paying $400 a month to Wells Fargo for the next 10 years with a 6.7 percent interest rate.

If she doesn't pay it back, she could ruin her mother's credit as well as her own.

Erin Downs, a Wells Fargo representative, said the bank encourages its student borrowers to exhaust all federal grants and possible scholarships before looking into private student loans.

"It's very important to explore all options and understand what they are before taking out any loan," she said. "They need to understand how quickly they are expected to make payments when they leave school or graduate."

Another local girl found a unique way to ease her debt.

Lindy Capps, 24, grew up in Acampo and attended Galt, Lodi and Tokay high schools, where she played basketball and ran track.

She spent two years studying at Cosumnes River College before transferring to the University of California, San Diego to run track. She took out a $5,000 loan to help pay the bills, but didn't keep up on the payments. After she finished school in June 2010, she had accrued more than $1,000 in interest fees.

"I tried paying off the interest while in school, but sometimes it was just too much," she said.

She struggled to find work, but was eventually offered a job through AmeriCorps. She worked for a year to help build a new social media campaign. She was technically a volunteer, but also earned a modest stipend, health care benefits and an education award of $5,200. During her service, her loan was deferred and AmeriCorps helped pay off her interest in return for her service. She is now debt-free.

Capps decided to spend another year with AmeriCorps and is now in Missouri working with military families. She'll get another education award this year for $5,500, which she plans to put toward grad school.

Her loan was manageable in the end, but Capps said she would do it differently if she had the chance.

"I would have gone over all of my options first. My parents never saved for my college. I knew they would help me pay, but I should have taken a look at all of my options first. I'm lucky that it was only $5,000," she said.

Students can check in with financial aid advisers at their schools to answer the hard questions.

Noelia Gonzalez is the financial aid director at California State University, Stanislaus. She advises her students to remember that they are students, and that it can be necessary to live frugally during school.

"They should take out just what they need to survive, not enough to cover school, living and a spring break vacation," she said. The problems arise when students borrow more money than they need to get by, or take too long to pay it back.

When a student applies for financial aid, they receive an award notice listing any grants they qualify for and the rates and terms of a federal loan. Gonzales said many students try to make do with just grant funding, and cover the rest with savings or by working.

For Fant in Tennessee, the weight of loan debt on her shoulders is frustrating.

The principle hasn't budged much on Fant's loans, even after six payments. After five years of school, her job prospects haven't improved much, she said. In her mind, student loans aren't worth it in the long run.

"I felt like I was tricked when it came to student loans because I was young and doing what I had to do to get by. No one ever really explained to me what would happen later on," she said.

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com. For more information about local education issues, read our Education Café blog.

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