Student loans change lives.
Without them, many people could never afford to go on to higher education and would have little chance of higher-paying jobs.
But when the amounts owed are high and hopes don't become realities, student loans can become a burden.
We asked our Web readers to recount their experiences with student loans as a way to help others entering the student-loan frontier. Students and parents told stories of both gratitude and regret.
Here are their stories from their e-mails, edited for brevity and clarity.
Stephanie Shea of Wilkinsburg, bachelor's degree in human services administration from what is now Chatham University in 1997, master's degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh in 1999:
I began taking out student loans in 1995 when I returned to school at the age of 25 to complete my bachelor's degree. I attended Chatham for five semesters before graduating in 1997 with nearly $30,000 in student loans.
I then went on to the University of Pittsburgh to earn a master's degree in social work. The program was very internship intensive (over 1,300 hours required), so I had to take out loans for tuition, books, fees as well as to subsidize my living expenses. I was a full-time graduate student, worked (on average) 24 hours per week as an intern, and waitressed/tended bar as often as time allowed.
I graduated from Pitt in May 1999 with a total of $63,500 in student loans. When my six-month grace period ended, I consolidated my loans (at an astronomical 7.5 percent).
My first "real job" paid $28,000 per year -- and my student loan payments were nearly $600 a month for 30 years. Needless to say, I couldn't afford it. I called my lender and explained the situation. I was told that I qualified for the "income sensitive repayment plan", and that according to my income, I could afford to pay $92 a month. I paid $100 a month for almost the next five years. However, the interest on my loans was around $500 per month, so my loans grew at an alarming rate.
(Ms. Shea, who works two jobs, said she is now on an economic hardship forbearance so that she can pay for child care and elementary school tuition for her two children.)
My loans are currently hovering around the $100,000 mark. Most days I am so depressed, I can't even bear to face my current financial nightmare. I have ZERO dollars in savings, and my only retirement savings are from employer contributions.
It stinks being the poster child for "Generation Debt."
(and not included in the article...) Companies like Sallie Mae (ie: my third child) are every bit as predatory as those involved in the sub-prime mortgage crisis, yet this issue receives much less attention in the media. Needless to say, reform in this arena is at the top of my list for the upcoming election. Go Hillary!
(And go Stephanie!)