A college degree is supposed to open up job opportunities, but many graduates with student loans have found their career mobility has actually become more restricted.
In the Class of 2018, the average student loan debt for graduates with loans was $29,800, with an average monthly bill of $393. Once the grace period ends and full repayment kicks in, many borrowers feel pressured to take whatever job they can get.
According to American Student Assistance, 53% of student loan borrowers said their education debt was either a deciding factor or had a considerable impact on their choice of career field.
To learn more about how student loans influences career development, Student Loan Hero spoke with five borrowers about their experiences. Here are some results they reported, along with advice on avoiding their pitfalls:
1. Feeling trapped in a career path
2. Prioritizing salary over job satisfaction
3. Opting for the private sector over the public one
4. Turning down the chance to teach abroad
5. Giving up graduate school to avoid even more debt
Student loan forgiveness programs might help
When Craig Anderson started college at age 18, he didn’t have a clear goal for his career. But he felt pressured to choose a path, and so he opted to pursue civil engineering.
“Four years later, I had a degree and a ton of student loan debt,” said Anderson. “It has trapped me — my only choice is to work in an engineering role for decades to pay off my loans.”
Although Anderson now has stability in his career — and makes extra money through his appliance-based website Appliance Analysts — he doesn’t feel his heart is in it and wishes he’d had more time to explore before taking out so many student loans.
“In my view, many kids are too young to choose their life’s career [at age 18],” Anderson said. “Not everyone is certain about where they want to go, but parents and society force that choice on us. Whatever we choose, we then get stuck in that path because of money pressures. Unless you’ve always known what you want to be, it’s a stone-cold recipe for a career you’re not passionate in.”
Although you can always make a career change, it can be tough to give up a steady paycheck for a fresh start if you’ve got student loan bills to pay.
After borrowing student loans for college and graduate school, Brady McAninch owed $185,000 in student loans. To tackle this massive amount of debt, he prioritized salary above all else when deciding where to work.
“Student loans have absolutely impacted every career choice I have made since I graduated from law school,” said McAninch. “In fact, during law school, I focused on one goal: being in the top 10 of my graduating class to [ensure] a big-to-medium law job to guarantee a high salary.”
McAninch switched from law firm to law firm several times, increasing his salary with each move.
“The second move I only did due to my student loan payments, as I was happy at the firm I was at, but could not turn down the new firm’s higher salary,” said McAninch.
Unfortunately, the new job wasn’t a good fit, and McAninch made the difficult choice to put his loans in income-driven repayment so he could co-found his own law firm, Hipskind & McAninch, LLC, with a friend.
“While this worked out, it did cause my debt to balloon, given the interest rates and amounts I could pay,” said McAninch. “I am still working hard to pay down my student loan debt, and it has prevented me from purchasing a house.”
While McAninch didn’t let his loans stop him from opening his own firm, he still deals with the burden of debt constantly.
“Student loans impact my choices and budget on a daily basis,” McAninch said.
When Josh Patoka graduated with his bachelor’s in political science, his original plan was to work for a federal agency like the FBI. But with $50,000 in student loan debt, he felt he couldn’t scrape by on the government wages such jobs offered.
“After seeing my starting salary was going to be around $35,000 and [I would] live in an expensive city like D.C., New York, or Chicago, I started looking for private-sector employment,” Patoka said.
He landed a management trainee job with a higher salary and moved to an affordable area where he could rent an apartment without needing roommates.
“I took the job because it was the highest paying offer I had, and I knew I could be debt-free in five years,” said Patoka. “I made my last student loan payment in 2011. The tradeoff is that I worked night shift or [was] on-call basically every day of the week.”
While he had some interest in the work, he eventually left to pursue work as a freelance writer and Spanish tutor in order to achieve a better work-life balance. He also blogs on his own personal finance site, Money Buffalo.
But although he’s now debt-free now and enjoying his work, Patoka likely would have gone in a different direction originally if his student loans hadn’t been such a major factor in his career decisions.
After graduating from college, Zina Kumok was dreaming of teaching English abroad for a year. But she felt she couldn’t justify the expense, as her $24,000 in student loans came with a monthly minimum payment of $350.
“I wasn’t sure I could find a job that would pay enough to cover my student loans, and I didn’t want to defer my loans for another year,” said Kumok. “I had a bachelor’s degree in journalism and took a job at a local newspaper [instead]. I hated the gig immediately and regretted my decision.”
Kumok stuck out the job for a time until she was eventually able to move into a marketing and communications role, where she worked for three years before becoming a writer and editor.
“Eventually I did get a job I enjoyed, so it all worked out,” said Kumok, now a personal finance editor at DollarSprout. “But I could see how having student loans limited me in a way it didn’t for people who graduated debt-free.”
After majoring in psychology and sociology in college, Beverly Friedmann wanted to further her studies in graduate school. But her excessive student debt made her decide against it.
“Although I studied psychology and sociology and wanted to go to graduate school, my student debt had already accumulated and I needed full-time work immediately,” said Friedmann. “So I took on a job working as an assistant in a real estate office in an effort to begin making money and repaying debts as soon as possible.”
Friedmann said her loans were a “heavy burden,” and she felt forced into a job unrelated to her field to start paying them off right away.
“Because of student loans, I felt incredible pressure to just take any job that wasn’t even related to my field of study or interest as soon as possible in an effort to begin making payments and making money,” said Friedmann. “My career trajectory definitely changed due to student loans, and my career choices shifted due to a self-admitted desperation at the time to begin paying off my debts.”
After a series of jobs to pay the bills, Friedmann landed in the world of sales and marketing, eventually finding work that has helped her manage her debt better.
“I was able to eventually repay my loans [more quickly] and feel less anxiety related to such a high level of student loan debt,” said Friedmann.
But she no longer plans on graduate school and knows her path would have looked very different if she hadn’t had such big payments to make right after college.
With the average student loan debt so high, many student borrowers end up having less career mobility than their debt-free counterparts do. But if you owe student loans, remember that you don’t necessarily have to sacrifice your career goals to pay your debts.
If you’re interested in the public sector, for instance, you might qualify for loan forgiveness through programs such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness or Teacher Loan Forgiveness. Some states also offer loan repayment assistance to professionals in certain fields. And an increasing number of companies offer student loan repayment benefits to their employees.
Putting your loans on income-driven repayment is another strategy for adjusting payments while you search for a job. Of course, the downside of lowering payments is that you’ll likely pay more interest over the life of your loan and could add years to your terms. If saving on interest is your goal, you could explore refinancing your student loans to try for a lower rate instead.
Although striking a balance between student loan repayment and building your career can be challenging, exploring your options for repayment can help you find the right path forward.