HARRISBURG -- Elyse Hain went straight from Kutztown University to the $100,000 club.
Unfortunately, the figure refers to her college debt, not her salary. The Millersburg resident has a job she considers well-paying and satisfying as a county mental health case worker. But at 25, she lives with her parents and wonders how she'll ever afford to move out on her own.
Ms. Hain said she had no idea what she was getting into. She is the first in her family to attend college. She needed to borrow to cover most of her expenses at Harrisburg Area Community College, then Kutztown. Her big mistake, she said, was to accept every dollar offered.
"I don't blame anyone for the debt I've racked up, nor do I ask for sympathy for my debt," she said. "I only ask that those that are about to venture on their own college experience become educated on loans and the expense of college. I knew nothing and I am literally paying for it now."
Ms. Hain isn't alone in sounding an alarm. According to the Project on Student Debt, 71 percent of students who graduated in 2012 had student loan debt, with an average debt of $29,400. The organization said Pennsylvania, where the average debt was $31,675, had the third-highest level.
The National Conference of State Legislatures this month put the average debt slightly lower, at $26,500. But it said total student debt has reached $1.08 trillion, up more than 300 percent since 2003. It has surpassed credit cards as the second largest source of debt, behind mortgages.
The debt is crimping the budgets and undermining the well-being of many graduates as they strain to make headway in a "new economy" of a tight job market and stagnant wages.
The situation suggests that, even among people with college educations, there's a growing economic divide between college graduates who have to borrow a lot, and those from families who could put them through college with little debt.
Hazel Flack of Highspire, Pa., has nearly $60,000 in college debt. "This debt has crippled me. I am making less than half of what I owe. I cannot find a job that will pay more," she said.
Ms. Flack, 28, has a degree in English from Penn State-Harrisburg. She said her major reflected her love of writing and her dream of using it to earn a living. But she's working as an administrative assistant at Penn State-Harrisburg -- a job she got before graduating.
She has two loans and initially was expected to pay $600 per month -- far more than she can afford. For one of the loans, she was able to obtain an income-based payment rate, lowering her payment substantially. But she didn't qualify for a reduction on her second loan, which is in deferment, meaning she pays nothing for now, but accrues $200 interest per month.
She expects it will take her into her 60s to get out from under the debt. She said she struggles to afford living expenses and worries about providing a good education for her son. A rise in income will also trigger higher debt payments.
"I often feel it is a noose around my neck that tightens each time I try to better my life," she said.
However Don Francis, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania, said the situation isn't as dire as some make it seem.
"Debt has increased. I don't know that it has increased quite as dramatically as it is portrayed in the media and by some of our political and business leaders ... I'm not trying to minimize it, but I do think it is overstated," he said.
He said a $30,000 average debt shouldn't seem alarming when taking into account the positive impact a college education makes in someone's life, or when considering that people commonly pay $30,000 for a car.
He further said that, while stories of $100,000 student debts make headlines, such debt is far outside the norm. Mr. Francis said only about 4 percent of graduates, including those who went to graduate school, have college debt in excess of $100,000, and many of them went to medical or law school.
Russell Edling of Philadelphia has $83,000 in college debt. It's in the form of about a dozen loans, both federal and private and with widely varying interest rates. It was easy to get the loans, he said. But he's finding lenders to be less accommodating as he tries to consolidate and modify loans. "It's overwhelming in terms of keeping track of everything," he said.
Mr. Edling, 25, has a degree in graphics design from Temple University. He has a freelance job in his field and says it has good potential to become a permanent job. But he's also a guitarist and singer in a rock band, and says his debt load makes it impossible for him to go on tour and attempt to make it in music, therefore narrowing his possibilities.
He shares a house with a group of friends and, because of monthly loan payments of about $1,000, he "scrapes by" financially -- even with his parents contributing nearly half his loan payment.
Still, there's widespread agreement that a college education is usually worth the investment and debt. The Pew Research Center in the report released this week said college-educated student debtors had typical incomes of $57,941, nearly twice the income of households headed by someone without a bachelor's degree.
Jaime Marshall owed about $35,000 when she graduated from Penn State-Harrisburg in 2005. A teacher, she earned $5,000 in forgiveness by working in an impoverished school district for five years and has otherwise paid her debt down to about $20,000.
Now she's a reading specialist for a school district and married with a house, two kids and childcare expenses. It's a struggle to pay $300 per month toward her loans. "We are living comfortably, but the belt is tight and there isn't any room for many extras," she said.
On the other hand, her husband, whom she met in college, left college for a 10-month training program, completed the program with no debt, and now earns more than her as a network administrator.
Mr. Edling said he knows many people who have stopped paying their college debts. He won't do that, he said, because his parents co-signed, and he doesn't want to hurt them financially.
But he said, "I cannot come to terms with this situation, and I don't see how anyone can."