By the time Deirdre Citro departs Marquette University with a nursing degree in hand, she'll have paid the school about $50,000 in tuition - $35,000 of it in student loans.
That is serious debt for someone whose diploma could command starting pay in the $30,000 range."I wouldn't wish these loans on anybody," Citro says, a 20-year-old junior. "But I still believe it's worth it."
In that sense, she's no different from thousands of other college students and their parents who have borrowed more and more the past 10 years to meet the climbing cost of higher education.
For the second straight year, tuition increased an average of 6 percent nationally, more than twice the rate of inflation, according to the College Board.
And student loans this year may reach $29 billion - up from $27 billion last year and $24 billion in 1994 - far outpacing levels of a decade ago, when students ran up $9 billion in debt.
The trend toward more student debt alarms many, including university admission officials.
Some speculate that the debt burden might force graduates to delay starting families and making major purchases. Others believe that the spiraling debt simply indicates a shift in the burden to those who benefit most - the students themselves.
"We're graduating kids who are going to be economically stunted for 10 years," says Raymond Brown, MU dean of admissions.
Brown worries about the unintended consequences of massive student debt.
"They're not going to be buying homes, new automobiles," he says. "And it's going to postpone their decision to start families."
Steve Van Ess, financial aid director at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, believes the trend marks a departure from the value society places on higher education.
"Years ago, there was a national feeling that higher education was a benefit to society," Van Ess says. A better educated citizenry, the reasoning held, would earn better wages and, in turn, pay more in taxes.
"The popular belief today is that higher education is primarily a personal benefit," Van Ess says. "And therefore those who benefit the most should pay."
Polite and direct, Citro chats confidently about finding a job to pay off her debt. She's concerned but not overwhelmed by the task that lies ahead.
She talks matter-of-factly about struggling to stay current in her classes in which she holds a 2.8 grade point average - all the while juggling her finances. At MU, tuition will rise another 6.5 percent next year for Citro and her nursing classmates to $14,275 per year.
To meet rising costs, Citro spends 20 to 30 hours per week on the phone trying to persuade high school students to come to MU. She earns $5.10 per hour.
She shares a three-bedroom apartment with three friends, splits the cost of utilities and saves wherever she can.
The average loan debt this year for a MU graduate will be $18,222.
Although large loans are not uncommon at pricey private schools, public universities also have witnessed mushrooming debt, UW-Madison's Van Ess says.
Student borrowing has increased from $41 million in 1991-'92 to $75 million this year, Van Ess says. About half of UW-Madison's graduates last year borrowed to pay for college.
The College Board has determined that loans accounted for 56 percent of all federal, state and school-based financial aid packages this year. Ten years ago, loans made up 49 percent of the aid handed out.
The board is a non-profit corporation that administers the Scholastic Assessment Test and Advanced Placement exams.
Moreover, the board found that the primary form of federal gift aid - the Pell grant - has seen its purchasing power erode. Pell grants cover 10 percent of private college costs today, compared with 20 percent in the mid-1980s. Those grants pay for one-third of costs today at public schools, compared with about half in the mid-1980s.
"In general, students borrow more because that's where they're being pushed," Van Ess says. "The question is: How much is too much?"
Citro says she hasn't reached that point and doesn't regret her decision to attend MU, citing the school's reputation and her belief in a Jesuit education. She hopes to graduate in August 1997 and would like to pursue a nursing career in the South.
Citro, however, offered this advice to new college students: "Don't get in over your head. Budget yourself. Know what you want to do. Otherwise you'll waste thousands of dollars."
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)