A year ago a young woman who lives nearby graduated from a major Northeastern university after four intense, busy years, during which she did everything right -- attended every class, worked three jobs, earned good grades and glowing recommendations from her teachers.
"College was not much fun," Leah said. "When I graduated, I was so happy. I thought the drudgery was over and the fun was about to begin -- living on my own, working, not having to worry about every dollar.
"Well, I thought wrong."
Leah graduated with honors; she also graduated more than $12,000 in debt. "I figure I'll be paying off my college loans for the next 10 years -- if I'm lucky," she said.
No one "sent" Leah to college. She paid for books and lab fees out of the money she's earned since she was 14; room, board and some of her tuition were paid from 60-hour-a-week summer jobs and many part-time jobs during the academic year.
Scholarships helped, but still she had to borrow money. Now she has to pay it back, while equipping herself with a noncollege wardrobe and transportation to her new job.
She must come up with deposits for phone and utility companies and her new landlord, plus pay for rent, food, taxes, health and car insurance -- everything that goes with paying your own way in the world.
"Even with deductions, the numbers on my first paycheck overwhelmed me," she said. "Twenty-two thousand dollars a year! I thought I was rich. Then I spent 20 minutes with a calculator and realized that financially I'm back where I was three years ago -- barely breaking even."
Leah shrugs off sympathy. "I'm not complaining -- just surprised," she said. "I realize now that being in debt long-term and big-time is the price you have to pay if you want to go to an expensive, prestigious college.
"But if I had it to do over again, I'd look harder for scholarship money and pick a less expensive school that offered the same courses for the same degree. I'd also work full time and go to school part time for at least two of the four years, instead of the other way around."
College debt is a fact of life for 12.5 million U.S. workers who're slowly paying off almost $42 billion in college loans. One survey of college debt showed that an undergraduate degree carries an average debt load of almost $8,000; a graduate degree $31,000.
The problem of payback is compounded when two college borrowers marry. John and Melanie have three kids, a mortgage, endless home improvement costs, two dilapidated cars and three college loans between them.
Both hold secure, full-time jobs for the state of Maine, but John works another job three nights a week and all day Saturday to plug the gap in his family's finances, caused in part by college debts.
"Neither of us would have wanted to miss the advantages college gave us," said Melanie, "but everyone who takes out student loans should consider how they're going to pay them back -- even though the payback seems a long way off when you're just starting college.
"Put together, our payments are $275 a month, and they have to be made each and every month, no matter how many car breakdowns or visits to the pediatrician we've had."
Most young people who take out student loans accept payback as a fact of life, but it can be difficult for a college freshman to visualize the effect this long-term payback can have on his or her career choice, job choices and lifestyle -- often for as long as a decade after graduation.
Said Leah: "I'm glad I had the chance to go to college. No matter what it took, it was worth it. But I would advise kids on their way to college to look at other options before they borrow the money to plunk down for four consecutive years at an expensive college."