Student loans change lives.
Without them, many people could never afford to go on to higher education and would have little chance of higher-paying jobs.
But when the amounts owed are high and hopes don't become realities, student loans can become a burden.
We asked our Web readers to recount their experiences with student loans as a way to help others entering the student-loan frontier. Students and parents told stories of both gratitude and regret.
Here are their stories from their e-mails, edited for brevity and clarity.
Chris Commella of Brighton Heights, earned associate degree in executive secretarial from Community College of Beaver County in 1985 went to Point Park University in 1992 and graduated in 1996 with a bachelor's in human resources management.
I was the last of five kids in my family so I paid for my education myself. My parents were supportive of a college education, but did not have the means to pay for it, nor did I expect them to do so. It is amazing how much more I appreciate my education because I paid for it myself. I didn't waste a dime.
It has been 12 years since I completed my bachelor's degree and have, of course, paid all of my loans off (both early by the way). I hated owing money, and I still do.
I think the fact that I was responsible for paying my own way through school taught me a lot about handling money and being a responsible adult, and helped me to have an impeccable credit rating, which came in very handy when I bought my house.
Jeff Verner of Sewickley, graduated from the professional pilot program at Community College of Beaver County in 1993, graduated from Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania in 1998.
I have always been grateful for the opportunity I had of deciding at the age of 25 to enroll at Slippery Rock University and work towards my teaching certification. I would not have ever been able to stop working for low-paying jobs and pursue [teaching] if it was not for the student loan option!
I began working full-time beginning at the age of 16, working my way through an associate degree in professional piloting and air traffic control without ever taking a break from work. I accumulated no debt attending the Community College of Beaver County, paying cash for all of my flight lessons and tuition from the money I made working.
While I consider this a major accomplishment in my life, it took me five years to do this, when other classmates were completing the entire program in two to three years! I was committed and grateful for the jobs that I had, but started realizing that they were holding me back from ever really getting ahead.
My associate degree credits from community college transferred to Slippery Rock University, which was another unbelievable savings for me! It meant that I could start this university as a junior and could complete the teaching certification program in two years! This meant that I would only have half of the debt of those choosing to enroll at a university level for a full four years!
The student loan shocker for me occurred seven years after graduation. My student loan interest rate was between 2.5 to 3 percent from 1999 until 2005. Then it shot way above 8 percent! It is absolutely ludicrous when you can have a mortgage on your house for a fixed 5.5 percent, and your student loan interest is 8.5 percent!
Mariann Bulko, a parent, of Donora, Washington County
I took a parent PLUS loan in 2001 for my daughter's school, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre in West Virginia. Then a few years later, I added a parent PLUS loan for my son at a culinary school. Due to missing school for medical reasons, he had to drop out, due to their attendance policy. Now I am paying a combined student loan payment of $276 a month for 30 years. My debt of $46,000 will be paid when I am 86.
My son only attended culinary school for a few months, and because they bill upfront, the money was paid to them, no refunds, etc.
So I guess when I retire or whatever, I will have to sell my home to pay this off, as I will not be able to afford the payment.
My advice to parents: Read the fine print very carefully.
Shana Wivell of Fallowfield, Washington County, started at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania in 1998 and graduated from Point Park University in 2005.
I have lots of student loans, actually about $30,000, which is not much compared to most people. It's about $170 a month, oh, forever.
I am certainly glad student loans exist because without them I would never have been able to attend college. I am also in the military, which contributed money toward my education.
But after choosing to leave a state school and attend a private school, I needed additional money and also money to live on. There are so many costs associated with college that one almost has to borrow just to be able to keep up. I don't think I borrowed extravagantly (for the most part) considering my circumstances (having to provide my own housing, health care, transportation while attending college).
The loan money enables people like myself who don't have family support to fall back on to have a safety net.
I currently work for the state Department of Environmental Protection. It stands to reason that without a degree I would not have this job and without student loans (and the GI Bill) a girl from the North Side with working-class parents would not ever have been able to set foot in any university.
Being able to attend college truly changed the quality and direction of my life. Everything in my life is reflective of the fact that I was able to be educated: I now own a home, I have a nice vehicle, I am able to work at a job I enjoy and help other people in the process.
The one thing in my life I will always pay are my student loans. I may be late on other bills, but I will absolutely not be late on the loans.
This money is a privilege, and paying it back is paramount for the government to be able to continue to offer this service to future generations.
However, I do caution people away from borrowing too much money, as the return may not be waiting for them at the end of the journey.
There are certainly times as I am writing out that check every month that I ponder, "Did I really need to borrow all that money?" There are times when I can't do things or afford things other people can, people who do not have that payment every month.
I tell every new college student (who will listen) to borrow only what you need. It's like a credit card. It can feel like free money, and what better cause is there than your future, but it's also far too easy to borrow more than one needs.
Robert M. Johnston of Bloomfield, bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Pittsburgh in 1991, master's of business administration from the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business at Pitt in 1993.
Most of my education was financed by student loans, so I took out a great deal from multiple sources.
Upon graduating, I consolidated those various loans as most people do. The consolidation rate was 9 percent -- the going rate at the time. Much higher than they are now and have been in recent years.
The problem is that consolidating student is not like refinancing your home mortgage. You cannot refinance once you have consolidated. I find this to be a problem in the system.
David Fersch of Reserve , associate degree from what was known as Penn Technical Institute in 1996; associate degree from what was known as Computer Technical School in 1998.
I had a very bad experience with my student loans.
I made the mistake of not reading every single piece of material that I received from the student loan servicing center and it cost me a LOT of money!!! I was speaking to a student loan representative about eight years ago, and he talked me into consolidating my loans at the time, because if I did, the interest rate wouldn't go any higher. I thought that would be fantastic!
Little did I know at the time the interest rate was 8.25 percent, which was the maximum it could go anyway at the time. He talked me into making a huge mistake by locking in an interest rate that was at the ceiling already. I found out a few months later when it was too late to do anything about it.
I called them and asked what I could do, but they just said I should have read everything I got from them and it wasn't their problem. They said if I read what they sent, then this would have never happened to me. It was my responsibility to know what the interest rates were and to know they couldn't go higher than where I was at.
I was getting so much mail from them and not all of it was completely understandable to me. I didn't ever think that someone at a loan servicing center would ever do that to anyone.
All I can say is read everything, no matter how hard it is to understand. They will NOT look out for you.
Poppy Cates of Irwin, bachelor's degree in political science from Seton Hill University in 1994, master's degree in sociology from American University in 1996.
I had a minimal student loan for undergrad at Seton Hill University. Those ones were worth it.
My grad school loans kill me. I borrowed $40,000 that I feel never benefited me career or otherwise and that will take me until retirement to pay off.
Sean Williamson of Morningside, to graduate from Temple University School of Medicine this year, graduated from Duquesne University in 2003.
Like most medical students, I am graduating this year with a substantial amount of student loans, totaling roughly $135,000.
Beginning residency, a three-to-seven-year training period where young doctors are paid around $40,000 to $45,000 per year, the thought of loan repayment is rather worrisome.
I am nevertheless happy with my choice to become a doctor, (I have chosen to train in pathology and laboratory medicine) as it is a stimulating and rewarding career, but I remain concerned that it may not have been the wisest financial decision in the current state of potential healthcare reform.
Stephanie Shea of Wilkinsburg, bachelor's degree in human services administration from what is now Chatham University in 1997, master's degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh in 1999.
I began taking out student loans in 1995 when I returned to school at the age of 25 to complete my bachelor's degree. I attended Chatham for five semesters before graduating in 1997 with nearly $30,000 in student loans.
I then went on to the University of Pittsburgh to earn a master's degree in social work. The program was very internship intensive (over 1,300 hours required), so I had to take out loans for tuition, books, fees as well as to subsidize my living expenses. I was a full-time graduate student, worked (on average) 24 hours per week as an intern, and waitressed/tended bar as often as time allowed.
I graduated from Pitt in May 1999 with a total of $63,500 in student loans. When my six-month grace period ended, I consolidated my loans (at an astronomical 7.5 percent).
My first "real job" paid $28,000 per year -- and my student loan payments were nearly $600 a month for 30 years. Needless to say, I couldn't afford it. I called my lender and explained the situation. I was told that I qualified for the "income sensitive repayment plan", and that according to my income, I could afford to pay $92 a month. I paid $100 a month for almost the next five years. However, the interest on my loans was around $500 per month, so my loans grew at an alarming rate.
(Ms. Shea, who works two jobs, said she is now on an economic hardship forbearance so that she can pay for child care and elementary school tuition for her two children.)
My loans are currently hovering around the $100,000 mark. Most days I am so depressed, I can't even bear to face my current financial nightmare. I have ZERO dollars in savings, and my only retirement savings are from employer contributions.
It stinks being the poster child for "Generation Debt"!
Bob Poropatich of Stanton Heights, who earned a bachelor's degree in 1975 and a master's in 1997, both at schools in Ohio.
When I attended college, prices were obviously less expensive when compared to today but costly for the times, 1970 to 1975.
During those years, I pursued a bachelor's degree. In order to accomplish this, it was necessary for me to obtain loans for tuition, etc. It was also an unspoken necessity since I was one of six children in my family who all attended and graduated from a college program.
Upon graduation, I soon received my payment information and proceeded to make my monthly payments as agreed upon. After close to eight years, there was light on the horizon and the last two payments were in sight.
In the interim, I wrote to my alma mater and requested that transcripts be sent to other schools which I was hoping to attend for another master's degree.
Their response was that I had yet to repay my student loans and that no transcripts would be sent until the loans were paid in full. Despite all of the canceled check photocopies, I was still being denied and being told that none of these monies had been received. I wrote to [the loan agency], which stood by the school in their claims.
My parents were furious with the bureaucracy and were worried that further educational pursuits would be jeopardized by this ruling. My father gave me a loan to pay for the loans for a second time. Soon, I began paying my father back.
After about 14 months, I received a form letter from my alma mater stating that my loan was "overpaid" and that a refund check was forthcoming. Ironically enough, it was for the same amount as I paid for the loan re-payment.
Kathy Hart, a parent, of Carmarillo, Calif.
I am not complaining about having to pay for the fair cost of my son's school loans. What I am complaining about is the interest rate charged for private school loans.
My son went to ITT Tech in Oxnard, Calif., for two years (2002-2004). He was able to get a federal loan for $9,925.27 at 3.375 percent. He then had to get three private loans: $10,321.00 at 13.25 percent, $9,576.00 at 14.25 percent and $5,343.00 at 13.25 percent.
His payment are approximately $289 per month. Faithfully, I have been mailing $500 per month to the lender, $289 for the monthly payment they require and about $200 to go to principal.
What [the lender] is doing with our payment is applying the extra payment amount to interest and not principal.
After two and a half years, I have sent [the lender] $15,000. However, our original loans in the amount of $35,175.27 have increased to $45,224.31. That is what we owe today, so the lender has made $15,000 off of us so far. Our original loans have increased by $10,049.04.
I see no way of ever getting ahead of these loans. I would have to send in over $1,000/month, which would not work because [the lender] is not even applying my extra payment amount to principle like I requested.
Something has to be done about this.
L.C. Loggins, of Oakland, Calif., who graduated from Sonoma California State University in 1980 and entered the California College of Podiatry in 1982 and finished in 1986.
I entered the California College of Podiatry in 1982. I borrowed $100,000 for the four years. At the time I graduated, the loans had already ballooned to over $250,000. I started paying $500 per month, which satisfied the Department of Education and kept them from reporting me as a deadbeat student.
My undergraduate loans were also over $100,000 by 1999, and I was paying them over $600 a month, along with the $500 to the U.S. Department of Education. This arrangement allowed me to keep practicing podiatry, while the loan's interest was going through the roof. I now owe $600,000!
Mr. Loggins describes job difficulties and a residency he says prevented him from paying off the loan.
Before leaving for the residency, I had requested forbearance for the one-year duration of the residency. To be truthful, I never thought about the forbearance request again until I returned home and found a letter from the California Podiatry Board directing me to explain why I had been summarily denied participation in Medicare and Medical, and to explain my student loan default. They threatened to suspend my license!
I contacted them and explained the events leading to the default. I also explained to them how my license should not be dependent upon my loan situation and third-party insurer status. They reluctantly agreed, after which they promptly charged me an administrative fee of $1,500!
I maintained my license for two years after that, attempting to operate a cash practice. But the economics did not allow any success, and I have been wallowing in various-and-sundry jobs ever since.
Kelly Bousson of Chaska, Minn., graduated from Minnesota State University-Mankato in 1992.
If you want to poison your future, get a student loan.
Getting a student loan is my single greatest regret in life, and it weighs on my mind every day.
My loan amount has climbed from $28,000 to a current amount of $42,459.
What happened? Life happened. Jobs that I have had since graduation have never supplied the kind of salary that would have allowed me to pay what [the loan agency] was asking. Actually, I could have made the loan payments, but not in addition to buying food, shelter, and clothing.
Add a divorce to the quandary, and here I am now. I'm 39 years old. I've recently consolidated my entirely unaffordable loan to a Direct Loan through the Department of Education. Under the new loan terms, I will make payments that are higher than my current monthly rent, and I will do this until I am 64 years old.
I am told that after this amount of time has passed, the unpaid balance will be "forgiven." Of course, under current laws, the "forgiven" amount will still be taxed as income. If this does not constitute indentured servitude, someone please tell me what does.
So, my advice to anyone considering a student loan is this: Don't even think about it.
If you must, work full-time until you can pay cash for your education. Seek out companies that offer tuition reimbursement. Join the military for education benefits. Seriously consider trade schools and community colleges. Perhaps college is not even the right choice for you, at least not right now.
Do whatever you must, but do not even consider getting a student loan. No education is worth trading your freedom and your future.
Brian J. Kahle, of Bellvue , graduate of Grove City College in 2000, Duquesne University Law School in 2003.
I have seen first-hand among colleagues, and experienced personally, the detriments created by the ready accessibility of student aid and the rising costs of higher education.
My choice to borrow funds, particularly for professional graduate studies, is a source of great frustration and regret. Had I fully understood the financial and credit hardships these obligations would create, I would not have continued without additional scholarships, if at all.
In short, I do not believe the cost of higher education in America today is commensurate with the increase in income potential gained over a working lifetime. It simply is not worth it economically for many in my generation. This cost-benefit threshold was passed somewhere between the boomers and my generation.
Timothy James of Cranberry, attended the University of Pittsburgh from 1998 to 2002, earning a bachelor's degree in computer science, and from 2003 to 2005, earning a master's of business administration.
I started off at the University of Dayton, but after my first year, I transferred to the University of Pittsburgh, where I spent four years.
I came from a kind of poor family, and I moved out of the house and paid my own way for everything.
Unfortunately, I accomplished this by taking out over $70,000 worth of student loans by the time I graduated in 2002. I started a job making a whopping $42,000 per year. At this salary I couldn't afford my student loan payments, ESPECIALLY with high-interest private student loans.
In part due to my massive loans (while attending school your payments are deferred), I went back to the University of Pittsburgh Katz Graduate School of Business the next year, in 2003.
After two and a half years part-time, I had managed to rack up about $115,000 in total student loan debt. My student loan payments each month are well over $1,000.
As far as the return on investment goes, my salary progression shows it's paying off, but a good portion of that is that I've gotten lucky with my career choices. I can't imagine what somebody who has this much student loan debt does when they're not as lucky as I was with salaries.
Still, even being lucky, with my student loan payments, it's like paying two mortgages and I'm under so much debt right now, I wonder if I'll ever get out.
My biggest criticism of the aid process is that a student is eligible for a comparably tiny amount of federal Stafford Loan aid in the first year (when it is most needed) and a much larger amount of Stafford Loan aid in graduate school (where you should have enough knowledge/experience/education to at least get a decent-paying job). Obviously, the process is very heavily back-loaded.
My recommendation to college students, both current and future, is to calculate how much money you will be paying monthly in student loans at the start of each semester. This will keep it real and in the forefront of your mind.
When you are in college, it seems like graduation/payback is forever away, and you may be motivated to sign up for anything so long as you don't have to drop out of school for financial reasons. The consequences are definitely not outlined or readily apparent.
Also, deferment only applies to payment; the interest is still accruing (on unsubsidized loans). Students should always know what they're getting into before signing anything.
I feel like the process makes it very difficult for students from low-income/no-income families to get ahead in life. Without scholarships, subsidized Stafford Loans make barely any difference in the beginning. (Where can you go to school for $2,500, which was the first-year cap when I started, I believe?)
So, really, barring amazing financial aid packages, you have a choice: get a low-paying job right out of high school, or get a moderate-paying job after four years of college and spend 40 percent of your pay on student loan payments.
It's just not a great choice.
Robin G. Sears of Homewood, bachelor in journalism, Duquesne University in 1987.
Completely ruined my life is what [the student loan agency] did. I was 17 years old when I borrowed money to go to Duquesne University, and now at 44 I have a bill over $30,000.
Once I had $2,500. The following semester I borrowed the maximum amount again. Within six years, I borrowed $10,000. A loan I believe I will never repay (fully).
The federal government -- a gigantic giant -- seems very interested in giving loans to poor black college students and then laugh at them for the rest of their life while they struggle to pay $300 to $400 a month, mind you, on top of bills, children, necessities to live.
I grew up in the projects in Homewood and always dreamed of doing the impossible. I wanted to teach after obtaining my college degree. I wanted to be a scientist.
Guaranteed student loans as a path to reach my dream only ended up in a ghoulish nightmare called "a guaranteed debt" that will follow me to the grave.
My life has been altered only because I wanted an education. An education that was supposed to bring me out of poverty dynamically has only sunken me more.
Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1955.