DeKALB – Northern Illinois University student Aaron Harrison said he knows family members and friends who can go to college but the fear of student loan debt holds them back.
Harrison, 21, is majoring in finance and said the student loan situation across the country doesn't make any sense.
"They tell us education is so important," Harrison said. "There are so many people I know who could come to school, but can't because they're worried about the loans," he said.
Student loan debt has been a topic on the campaign trail ahead of this year's presidential election, with some candidates referring to it as a "crisis" and proposing amnesty for government-backed loans.
Nationwide, total student loan debt is $1.4 trillion as of July 2019, according to Experian Information Solutions. The average borrower in Illinois from the first quarter of 2019 had $36,975 in student loan debt.
To put the student loan debt in perspective, Americans owe more than $1.2 trillion in auto loan debt, according to Lending Tree. Americans also borrow an average of $32,480 for new vehicles, according to Lending Tree.
At NIU, average debt from students in the 2018 graduating class was $33,912, according to US News and World Report.
Harrison said instead of racking up loans to go to a university, friends of his have gone to community college to save money.
"They couldn't come to a four-year university," he said, saying they didn't want to pay back the loans. It's either that or their family can't help them out with the cost of tuition.
Idalis Montanez, a senior biology major, said she transferred from Sauk Valley Community College in Dixon. She's also a first-generation college student.
"I'm kind of the one who's figuring it all out," she said.
Montanez said she has "a few" student loans. She learned about loans when she first applied and then again at orientation.
"Part of orientation is you sit through a PowerPoint, an overview, of how to take out loans, when you should take out loans and how much you should take out," she said. "But obviously it's different for everyone."
Montanez said she's found guidance since orientation too.
"Going to financial aid here on campus really helped," she said. "Since everybody's situation is a little bit different, they can look into your information and help you choose the right path for you."
Montanez said she has been counseled about how serious the loans are and that full-time students have at least one advantage: They don't start paying until six months after graduation.
Mario Jeffries, a financial aid advisor at NIU, said when students first take out a loan, they have to go through "entrance counseling," before the money gets disbursed.
The entrance counseling requires the student to provide any details on income, financial aid and living expenses. The student must also provide projected income information for their intended profession, the size of their family, projected loan balance, interest rate and state of residence.
The student must also complete their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and sign a master promissory note — which is a legal document promising they'll pay back their loans and any accrued interest and fees, according to the US Department of Education's website. The note also explains the terms and conditions of the loans.
Jeffries also said the students are suggested to go through "exit counseling." That helps to understand how and when people have to pay back their loans and the options they have for deferment, grace periods and consolidations, according to NIU's financial aid website
Harrison said he thinks, and sometimes worries, about the seriousness of his student.
"Am I going to be able to pay it off," he said. "I think about how long am I going to have to pay it, because I know there's interest. That kind of worries me if 30 years from now, I'm still paying for college loans and I'm trying to retire."
Harrison said he's been trying to figure out ways to save money, which includes changing from the dorms to an off-campus apartment because it's less expensive.
The cost of attendance estimates for the 2019-20 school year, with 12 or more credit hours per semester and a double room dormitory – $29,118 – include.
"Since I've been here, it's been stressful for me financially," he said.