Biolans’ debt affects future employment [Part Two]

As student debt rises, graduates struggle to find employers who will hire students with significant debt.

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Students graduating with debt after a Biola University education. | Photo Illustration by Job Ang/THE CHIMES

Kathryn Watson, Writer

For sophomore intercultural studies major Ariel Alire, graduation is still off in the distance. But, she is already making plans to go into translation work overseas to start paying off the education debt she is accruing at Biola before pursuing anything missions-related.

“I really want to pay off my loans fast,” said Alire, who estimated that she has about $35,000 in student loan debt at this point in her educational career.

Balancing education and debt

Alire is one of many Christian students hoping to fulfill the Great Commission in another country, trying to figure out how student loan payments fit into the future. As debt of all kinds has become more prevalent in American society, most mission organizations have implemented policies barring individuals with certain levels of educational debt from going overseas. The reality of having to pay off debt is becoming increasingly close for the approximately 650 seniors who will receive their diplomas in two weeks. Student debt, however, becomes especially burdensome for those hoping to do mission work overseas.

“It is a problem,” said Betsy Wambach, who works in personnel selection and training at SEND International. “It’s a conundrum for us because on our part, we are saying we want you to have a Bible education, and on the other hand, we are saying we don’t want you to have the debt.”

Wambach said student loan debt is becoming an increasing obstacle for those who approach the organization wanting to go to the mission field, something that reflects the reality of student debt nationally.

Student debt on the rise

Student loan debt in America is rising at the rate of about $2,853.88 per second, according to Finaid.org. In 2010, two-thirds of college graduates had debt to pay off post-graduation, according to the Project on Student Debt. That proportion has doubled since 1993, when just under one-third of college graduates in the U.S. had debt to worry about after graduation. As of 2010, student loan debt has surpassed credit card debt in America. And in 2009, the average graduating Biola senior who took out student loans had accumulated $26,555 in debt, according to the Project on Student Debt. (About 76 percent of graduating seniors had taken out loans.) By 2009, average student debt for graduating seniors nationally had risen to about $24,000.

Missions organizations critically view debt amount

Individuals who attend schools that cost as much as Biola, Wambach said, often come with a minimum of $40,000 in debt. But, SEND does not typically accept individuals with more than $40,000 in educational debt, and takes a serious look at individuals with even $20,000 in debt. Wambach said SEND usually accepts more students from schools like Moody Bible Institute, where tuition is free, because those individuals don’t have burdensome debt.

“We are having to put them off,” Wambach said. “We are having to say, ‘you’ve got to get your debt down.’”

Wycliffe Bible Translators, one of the nation’s largest and best-known mission organizations, does not allow individuals with more than $24,000 in student loan debt and couples with more than $36,000 in student loan debt to even begin an application process. International Mission Board does not allow for more than $200 monthly to come out of their missionaries’ salaries, noting that debt “places a significant burden on the missionary.” Many agencies do not allow even that much. Mission organizations explain that donors aren’t usually too enthusiastic about paying money to help future missionaries pay off their debts, and the legal aspect of non-profit organizations paying for personal debt gets dicey.

“That’s not really kosher with the IRS,” Wambach said.

Rick Bee, senior director of alumni relations, said his heart breaks for students whose debt may block them from fulfilling God’s goals for their lives.

“Mission boards won’t take students with significant debt because they know there will be trouble,” said Bee, who teaches an integration class on biblical stewardship. “… So, I don’t think anyone’s telling students, ‘you know, be careful of your debt.’”

Debt affects enthusiasm for missions work

Wambach said debt can drain missionary hopefuls not just financially but that it can hamper their motivation to go overseas.

“What happens at the point when [paying off debt] goes too long, is they lose their vision for going overseas because they’re taking too long paying off debt,” she said.

At the same time, some mission agencies are willing to work with students to help pay off their debt. And Campus Crusade for Christ recently upped their maximum educational debt acceptance level from $5,000 to $10,000 per person.

Loans as a last resort

When Sarah Davis graduated as a film major from Biola in 2009, she had no idea the Lord would call her to the mission field. She remembered that as a kid, she ran into her parents’ room and told them how she hoped God would never call her to work overseas. But, God had different plans.

Now, two years out, Davis doesn’t know exactly where she will go. She only knows that she will go. The Philippines is one option. That will be decided after she finishes her training at the Institute for Global Development in Nashville, Tenn. But Davis, who graduated with about $6,500 in debt, is one of the lucky ones. Davis realizes how fortunate she is that she doesn’t have anywhere close to the debt load of the average Biola student who graduated with debt in her year — $26,555.

“I can only imagine what it would have been like, especially now, training to do missions work,” Davis said.

Davis understood why mission organizations cannot allow individuals with significant student debt.

“It’s really biblical to get out of debt,” Davis said.

Sophomore ICS major Suzi Harrell’s parents, who are missionaries to Kenya, strongly advised her against taking out loans. Harrell, who wants to go into mission work overseas or work in foster care post-graduation, said she doesn’t want to be in debt, as she has no idea what kind of salary she will be making in the future. While many students in other majors can expect to make decent salaries after graduation, ICS isn’t one of them, she added.

“Taking out loans has kind of been my last resort,” said Harrell, who has taken out very little in loans.

Debts affect post-graduation decisions

But, graduates desiring to go into mission work are not the only ones changing or delaying major life decisions based on debt. The 2002 National Student Loan Survey sponsored by the Nellie Mae Corporation showed how greatly student loans impact students’ decisions post-graduation. The survey revealed that 19 percent of individuals with Pell Grants and 15 percent of students without Pell Grants changed their career plans because of student loans. And, 45 percent of students with Pell Grants and 35 percent without delayed buying a home because of their student loans. Along those lines, 19 percent of individuals with Pell Grants and 11 percent without delayed getting married because of student loans. (Students on Pell grants come from lower income brackets.)

Post-graduation life can be especially intimidating for those going into fields like ministry, where students do not expect to make exceptional income. Given just the small sampling of the job salaries of graduating Biola seniors from Career Development’s senior survey for May 2009 to May 2010, Bible and ministry majors were more likely than any other surveyed major group — which included business, education, art/film/music, nursing/health, social sciences/physical sciences, physical sciences/athletics, and communication — to graduate with salaries below $20,000. SimplyHired.com, as an example, assesses that the average salary for an associate pastor in Los Angeles is around $23,000.

Median starting salaries for Biola graduates who did have jobs upon graduation in December 2009 and May 2010 (or about 31.5 percent of graduating seniors), hovered in the $21,000 to $25,000 range.

Graduates’ salaries higher than national averages

While Biola grads’ salary outlooks may appear bleak on first glance, those numbers are higher than average national ones, although average national debt is lower than Biola debt. (Average national debt is $24,000, according to the Project on Student Debt.) Since the recession, the percentage of graduates who have jobs has plummeted. A mere 19.7 percent of 2009 graduates nationally who applied for jobs in 2009 actually had jobs upon graduation, compared to 51 percent in 2007, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Students’ ability to pay off debt, and to some degree, their satisfaction with their Biola education on the whole, relates to what kind of jobs they procure, said Bee, who interacts regularly with alumni.

“Those that are carrying debt still kind of feel like it was worth it, unless that debt is so significant, and the big challenge is finding work,” Bee said. “Part of it is our culture right now. It’s just there’s just not a lot of jobs out there. And I think the frustrations come when the debt hits, the realization that there’s debt that they’re carrying, and they’re struggling to find jobs. … Good debt is only good debt if you find a job.”

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