Conor McCandless, 18, is "wired for engineering or math" and he just started at Colorado School of Mines. At the moment he wants to be a chemical/biochemical engineer.
He has no idea now how much debt he will incur getting to his goals and even though the U.S. Congress made a last-minute move to keep Stafford loan interest rates from doubling, he is likely looking at more than $50,000 in student loans to follow him on graduation day.
McCandless is just one of many college students who are partly financing their college degrees with a federal Stafford loan. For weeks, Congress delayed a plan to keep the federally backed loan program interest rate at 3.4 percent. A measure capping the rates for another year passed and was signed by President Obama on June 29, however the bill will have to be renewed again in 2013.
The McCandless family is doing what most families do: They are borrowing from a couple of loan sources and using what they have saved to send their son to the school he wants to attend.
"I am a teacher and my husband is a police officer. We are definitely not the people who qualify for financial aid but do not have hundreds of thousands saved for college," said Tracy McCandless.
Maggie McCandless, 16, would like to go to medical school when she graduates in a couple of years, but the reality of how much that will cost will probably keep her from pursuing that dream.
"We just tell Maggie to relax. If she continues to get straight As, she will have a good shot at a scholarship somewhere," Tracy McCandless said. "Our kids are the ones who will be paying for college for many years after they graduate."
Kayla Ferguson, a recent graduate from Pepperdine University, said her looming debt is "very sobering" even though she received more than $35,000 in scholarships.
"I will also say that I do not regret attending a university that caused my fairly substantial amount of student loans. The people I met, experiences I had, and skills I gained should, in my mind, adequately prepare me for a career after college that will allow me to pay back my student loans without a problem," she said. "The reward of college far outweighs the stress of paying them back &ellipsis; at least for now!"
"There is grave concern about the amount of student loan debt students are incurring, especially for those students who do not graduate." - Eric King, financial director for Wiley College
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York estimates student loan debts now exceed credit cards and auto loans and more than 37 million Americans owe $870 billion in student loans.
That fact is always on the mind of Eric King, financial director for Wiley College in Marshall, Texas.
"There is grave concern about the amount of student loan debt students are incurring, especially for those students who do not graduate," he said. "Students who graduate and find a job in their field find it difficult to repay student loans. Students who do not graduate find it impossible to repay their student loans and this results in default."
Wiley is one of the 11 historically black universities related to The United Methodist Church. The denomination has 120 related and owned institutions in the United States, and the denomination also offers loans and scholarships for United Methodist students.
Schools need students to enroll so sometimes it might not be to the college's advantage to warn students about debt, said Alison Rabil, assistant vice provost and director of financial aid at Duke University, one of the largest universities related to The United Methodist Church.
"That is not the case, thankfully, at Duke but it is in large part what has contributed to this large debt problem. Couple that with a generation of parents who have managed their finances using more credit than any other before them, have not saved substantially, own homes they can't afford and therefore have less to spend on their children's educational expenses, and you have our current debt crisis," Rabil said.
The United Methodist Church also has a special Sunday each year - United Methodist Student Day - for congregations to donate to scholarships. The fund was established in 1866 for the advanced education of Sunday school children and the educational preparation of people for the ministry and missionary service.
The 1940 General Conference established Methodist Student Day with a churchwide offering. The 1968 Uniting Conference continued this connectional student-aid program to be funded by the United Methodist Student Day offering. Dates for taking the offering have changed through the years.
In 2012 United Methodist Student Day will be observed on Nov. 25.
Deontez Wimbley, 19, is a sophomore at Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C., pursuing a double major in religion and sociology. He plans to become an ordained minister in The United Methodist Church.
He financed his first year of college with a combination of institutional aid, Pell grant, work study and unsubsidized loans. "All together I took out close to $10,000 in loans for just one year," he said.
Tuition at this historically black United Methodist-related school increased 7 percent over last year, putting his next year of college at around $25,000. His call to ministry means going to a seminary, which he knows will add to the financial burden.
"I do often wonder how loans will affect me in the future. As a way of decreasing them I volunteer with AmeriCorps teaching middle school students literacy and writing, giving over 400 hours of community service a year," he said.
AmeriCorps accounts for about $1,500; four years of service will help Wimbley pay back $6,000.
Michael McCall, 23, plans to go to law school after he gets his undergraduate degree from Middle Tennessee State University. The cost of law school will be more of a deciding factor than which university he would really like to attend.
Already his debt is close to $50,000.
"I will probably be paying for college for a long time," he said.
*Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].