A.J. Mast / for NBC News
Harmony and Christopher Glenn walk with their dogs in their Indianapolis apartment complex. The Glenns are part of a growing population stuck paying down debt for a college education they never finished.
This past April, facing the prospect of three 20-page papers due in the same week, Indiana University East student Harmony Glenn had a panic attack in the school library.
“I couldn’t breathe, and my chest felt tight,” she said. “I was asking myself, ‘Do I push forward…or do I cut my losses?’”
Glenn, 27, had been inching toward a bachelor’s degree since 2004, transferring schools and taking breaks from her studies to switch her major, live with her parents to save money, and later move around Indiana with her husband to chase the best-paying jobs. Lately, she’d been working fulltime as a sales associate for a skin care retailer in an Indianapolis mall, and didn’t have the bandwidth to focus on her schoolwork.
The night of her panic attack, she made a decision to leave school. “I just looked at the bills and realized this didn’t make sense anymore,” she said.
Her husband, Christopher, 29, had dropped out a couple of years before after getting “burnt out” by both working and studying first at St. Joseph’s, then Ball State University, then Indiana University. He got his EMT certification instead. Together, they have around $40,000 in student loan debt, but no degrees to show for it.
“There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t think about it,” said Christopher. “This debt is a huge weight hanging over our heads. We’ve always wanted to purchase real estate, but our debts put a damper on that.”
The Glenns are part of a growing population stuck paying down debt for a degree they never got. According to a 2011 study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, only 56 percent of students who enter four-year programs graduate within six years. That number plunges to 22 percent for for-profit colleges. Meanwhile, the percentage of incoming students relying on loans is growing—from 2001 to 2009, the number increased from 47 percent to 53 percent, according to a report by Education Sector. The same report also found that borrowers who drop out are four times more likely to default on their loans.
Some of these dropouts grew up middle class with an expectation of getting a degree, like the Glenns. Others are students from low-income backgrounds, perhaps the first in their families to go to college. Michelle Obama recently launched an effort to encourage these first-timers to pursue higher education, but the odds are stacked against them: Pell grants and funding for state and city universities continue to shrink. Forty percent of students at four-year colleges, and 60 percent at community colleges, are working 20 hours or more to make up for these gaps, according to the Pell Institute.
Other paths to debt – and dropping out
“A lot of these kids come up against this wall of bureaucracy,” said Jennifer Silva, author of Coming Up Short, a book about working-class young adults. “They lack mentors to help them navigate the system” of admissions, financial aid, and choosing classes. “It ends up leaving them feeling kind of betrayed.”
This maze of red tape caused Hector Gonzalez, 30, to drop out of college more than a decade ago. Gonzalez—who was born in El Salvador, raised in San Jose, Calif., and didn’t have a green card—couldn’t get a straight answer as to whether he qualified for loans.
“I felt bounced between a lot of people, and it seemed like no one had the answers,” he said. “[Financial aid officials] would look at my documentation and become uncertain and unsure.”
When a private Christian school in San Diego finally approved him, he got $6000 from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid for each semester, but halfway through the spring, school officials told him he didn’t qualify after all. He tried working three jobs for the rest of the semester in order to pay the tuition, but it wasn’t enough. Twelve years and a chunk of interest later, Gonzalez still owes money to the school and on his FAFSA loan.
“At the age of 18, I was stuck with a $12,000 bill and nowhere to go,” he said. “I wish a counselor at my high school would have sat me down” and explained that “private universities aren’t always better.”
And neither are for-profits, where one-fifth of the nine million yearly Pell grant recipients end up matriculating, according to an Education Trust analysis of federal education data. Mary Nguyen, an analyst at Education Trust who led the Education Sector study last year on students who drop out with debt, found that many students choosing exorbitantly expensive for-profits don’t know the difference between a for-profit college and a regular one. They enroll “based on inadequate information,” overwhelmed with “the confusing array of choices,” she said.
Drew Scott, 26, registered for the for-profit Art Institute to study video game arts because he was attracted to the accelerated program.
“I didn’t completely understand what I was getting into,” he said. “I knew it was more expensive, but at the time, I thought, ‘they wouldn’t be charging more if it wasn’t better, right?’”
After two years of uneven teaching quality—“some of the teachers didn’t quite know what they were doing”—Scott concluded he wasn’t getting his money’s worth. He left the program earlier this year, owing $30,000 to the government and $15,000 to his parents. Scott now lives in Seattle and makes $11 an hour working part-time at a game-testing job. “I definitely didn’t need to go to school” to do this job, he said.
Scott has yet to mail in a loan payment, but others have gotten used to the stack of monthly bills. Rich Bisset, 25, a sales associate at an electronics store in Jersey City and the first in his immediate family to go to college, budgets $700 every month to various student loans. He owes $60,000 after a few semesters at Farleigh Dickinson, a private university, and then a cheaper stint at Rutgers University. He dropped out because he was working too much, and his grades plummeted as a result.
“I try not to think about that $700 because I already know it’s going somewhere,” he said. “If I got to keep it, I’d move out”—Bisset still lives at home in Colonia, N.J.—“or do some repairs on my car.”
Bisset hopes to return to school “when my finances are more stable,” but Harmony Glenn is fairly sure she’ll never go back.
“I never assumed [retail] would be my career,” she said. “I always assumed it was what I was doing until I finished my degree.” Becoming a manager at the skin care store would help her pay off the family debt, while going back for a political science degree promises her nothing.
Both Glenns do worry about what their parents think; their families stressed the importance of college early on. Harmony “walked into kindergarten knowing that what came after high school was college.” Christopher’s father, just 18 when he was born, tried to steer Christopher away from his own profession as a paramedic because of the low pay. His father worked two jobs so Christopher’s mother could go to school, and she’s now a city comptroller.
“My mom is kind of the poster child for ‘a degree will get you farther,’ ” Christopher said. “But at this point, it doesn’t always work like that.”
Education coverage for NBCNews.com is supported by a grant from the Gates Foundation.