More than 4,000 undergraduates are expected to walk across the stage to get their diplomas this weekend at Northern Arizona University’s Skydome.
And 6 out of 10 of those graduates will leave Flagstaff with a diploma, and thousands of dollars in debt.
The food court inside the Northern Arizona University Union was bustling earlier this week.
Just days before commencement ceremonies, students crammed for exams hunched over laptops and lattes.
Graduating senior Emily August finished her last assignment.
She’d created lesson plans that she hopes to someday use as a high school English teacher.
That is, if she finds a teaching job.
“My fallback right now is, I worked for Starbucks since my senior year of high school, so I’ll start off there and wait till I get a job with my degree,” August says.
August has applied for teaching jobs throughout the state. But so far, she’s struck out.
And she’s not alone.
A Rutgers University study released this week says only half of those graduating from college in the last five years has a full-time job.
And 40 percent work in fields that don’t require a degree.
August is making about $8 an hour at Starbucks, hardly enough to being paying off student loans.
“I will leave NAU with about $25,000 in debt. I have a scholarship that covers half of my tuition, but that doesn’t cover fees, or living expenses or the rest of my tuition,” she says.
August is among the 60 percent of NAU students who graduate with student loan debt.
The average amount an NAU student will owe on graduation day is $22,000.
Their first payment is due six months after they toss their caps in the air, whether they have a job or not.
This week, the Senate deadlocked over how to pay for a measure that would preserve low interest rates on student loans.
If they don’t agree, by summer, interest rates on some student loans could double.
That debt can reverberate through students’ lives.
David Bousquet is the student affairs vice president at NAU.
“Having significant debt may slow some of life’s major decisions,” he says. “Students with large amounts of debt are less likely to buy a house. Students with large amounts of debt may even delay marriage.”
And that looming debt may cause graduates to choose the highest paying job, rather than a lower-paying career in teaching or other public service.
Bousquet says students owe more money than in the past because the federal government has increased loan limits.
That’s been in response to higher tuition and fees at colleges and universities across the country, including NAU.
“Part of that increase is tied to decreasing state support and the economy,” he says.
Over the last five years, the Arizona Board of Regents says undergraduate debt at the state’s three public universities has increased 17 percent.
Bousquet points out that NAU students carry more debt than other state schools because more students here are financially needy.
For Emily August, paying for college was a struggle.
Her parents helped her out with half the rent, but they couldn’t afford other college costs.
Working at Starbucks also helped, but there were still many uncovered costs.
Still, despite her debt, August says earning her degree at NAU was worth it.
“You can’t put a price on your education,” she says. “I know because I came here, I’ll have a better, easier better life. And I’ll be doing what I love.”
After commencement, August plans to move home to Yuma to live with her parents until she finds a teaching job.