HACKENSACK, N.J. -- It's no small thing to make it to the top of one of U.S. News and World Report's college lists. But the folks at Seton Hall University aren't exactly celebrating their No. 1 national ranking for student-loan debt.
Sixty-one percent of students graduating from the South Orange, N.J., campus have to pay back student loans - the average totaling $37,724, according to America's Best Colleges 2008. The numbers are high but they are not an aberration. Nationally, nearly two-thirds of graduates of four-year schools have debt, according to the Project on Student Debt. That debt load averages $20,000.
New federal measures are expected to ease some of the burden going forward. But, for now, student debt - which is estimated to have more than doubled in the past decade - has a stranglehold on many students and families.
"I'll be paying it off for at least 10 years," said Andrea Antwi, who quickly ran up $20,000 in debt during her freshman year at Seton Hall. She ultimately decided on a less expensive route, attending Essex County College and now Rutgers University, where she is a junior. Still, she will graduate with at least $35,000 in loans to repay.
"When you're a senior in high school, these kinds of things don't enter your mind," said Antwi, who hopes to follow her parents into a career in nursing. "But it's crazy. It's depressing."
Experts warn that the burden is weighing heavily on a generation who may make a host of life-altering decisions - such as career choices and homeownership - based on a large debt acquired at a young age.
They say the debt problem may even be greater than reported since the numbers take into account only specified student loans, excluding other borrowing such as a parent who may have tapped a home equity loan to pay for college.
The averages are bad enough, but the extremes are downright scary. There are stories of students graduating with six-figure debt and looking at payments well into middle age.
Paradoxically, students at some of the most expensive schools have the least debt. That's because schools such as Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., and Drew University in Madison, N.J., which cost more than $40,000 for students who live on campus, have large endowments that allow the institutions to supplement tuition for middle-class and lower-income students.
Princeton, for instance, has an endowment approaching $15 billion. Princeton students, on average, graduate with the lowest debt load in the nation, according to the U.S. News survey. About 26 percent of Princeton graduates carry student-loan debt, averaging $4,965.
Advocates are hoping the new federal college cost reduction act will help rein in indebtedness. Interest rates on federally subsidized student loans will be cut in half over the next four years and opportunities are available for loan forgiveness for those who go into some public service jobs under the new legislation.
There also will be a cap on the percentage of yearly income dedicated to federal loan repayments, and grants to low-income students will be increased.
Congressional leaders have hailed the bill as the single biggest investment in making higher education affordable since the G.I. Bill in 1944.
"It's a significant step forward," said Robert Shireman, executive director of the student debt project, which is funded, in part, by the Pew Charitable Trusts. "Today a growing number of borrowers are in peril and this creates a safety net to make sure we're not continuing that."
Nine of 10 student loans are from government sources. Private student loans have come under even more scrutiny as part of a push to clean up the industry and its cozy relationships with some colleges.
Rep. Steven R. Rothman, a New Jersey Democrat, voted for the cost-reduction bill and said even more needs to be done.
"We know that much more help is needed for working- and middle-class families," he said. "This needs to be a national priority."
Patricia Alex writes for The Record in Bergen County, N.J.