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The total outstanding student loan debt has reached $1.2 trillion in the United States, surpassing total credit card debt as the second highest level of consumer debt. 

Credit: Carson Kahoe

Graduate students who take out loans at Penn shoulder a much larger average debt than undergraduates do. 

Compared to the average undergraduate debt for 2015 graduates of $18,900, the graduate program with the least amount of average debt was Engineering Ph.Ds at $30,006 in loans, and the maximum was $243,548 for students enrolled in Penn's School of Dental Medicine, according to data provided by Student Registration and Financial Services. 

Beverly Brooks, a student at the Graduate School of Education, saved up money for seven years in order to go to graduate school. Brooks, who majored in classical studies as an undergraduate, initially took out $17,000 in loans at her small Midwestern liberal arts college. She worked a job 20 to 30 hours a week throughout her four years as an undergraduate, even while studying abroad, and managed to pay off all her debt in about a year after graduation.

"I put myself through college largely on my own,” Brooks said. “I was pretty aggressive about my payments. A lot of it was to expenses like books and food, but I also paid off some of my loans while I was in school.”

With her undergraduate loans cleared, Brooks worked as a college counselor for the next seven years at a private K to 12 school, saving up money while she decided what career to pursue.

When she realized that she “wanted to keep working with kids,” she applied to Penn GSE and took out $20,000 — the maximum amount she was allowed — in federal loans. The average debt of students graduating from GSE in 2015 was $71,297, according to the data provided by SRFS.

Brooks’ debt is likely to add up to $30,000 due to the additional loans she will have to take out to finance her summer classes. Nonetheless, she said she felt that her graduate education was a necessary step to take for her career.

“I knew I would get a graduate degree — it was just when, not if,” she said. “It’s been a priority for me and I saved for seven years before I did it, and I’m still graduating with loans.”

Like Brooks, Penn Law School student Ray Chang also sees graduate school as a necessary step towards his career goals. A third-year student from Taiwan, Chang had already studied for and passed the bar exam to practice law in Taipei, but decided to go to school again in America to gain a competitive edge.

“Right now, I’m preparing for [the New York] bar,” Chang said. “If I can get it, it’s much easier for me to work here [in America], and even better to work in China, because they appreciate foreign attorney licenses.”

In order to attend Penn Law, Chang took out one million New Taiwan Dollars, or roughly $30,708, from the Taiwanese government, which he said he expects to pay back within five years of graduation. The average amount of debt taken out for Penn Law students who graduated in 2015 was $146,942.

After graduation, Chang said he hopes to practice international corporate law in North America or Asia. Penn Law graduates reported an average starting salary of $131,622 in 2015, but corporate law is a particularly lucrative field even within the legal industry.

Given this, Chang said he was not too concerned about his student debt.

“Most of [the] priority is the rating,” Chang said about his choice to attend a “Top 14” law school like Penn, where total estimated expenses for law students for the 2016-17 school year runs $89,260 a year. “If it is a good school for us, for our future career, then I would choose it first.”

Paula Narvaez, a second-year student at the School of Design, decided to come to Penn to pursue a graduate degree in landscape architecture after studying architecture at the University of Southern California. While she had graduated debt free from USC, Narvaez found herself somewhat surprised when she had to take out loans at Penn.

“I was super ignorant about [my finances] until my final year of [undergraduate school],” Narvaez said. “Not until then did I realize, oh shoot, my parents are paying x amount and they have x amount to pay over the next amount of years. That kind of put things in perspective for me.”

Narvaez, who said she is fortunate enough to have her parents pay for the greater part of her education, said she “definitely would have chosen” a different career had finances been more of a worry for her family.

“I know a few of my classmates who are financially struggling, who take semesters off,” she said. “It’s an added stress. Architects don’t make that much, even [with] all the hours you put in and everything you do.”

However, even given the moderate salary architects make, Narvaez said she believes that her choice of career and graduate education will be worth it.

“Yeah, I’m not going to be a millionaire or anything,” she said. “But finances became more of a secondary thing. It was more about, ‘Do I really love what I do?’”

In the end, students like Narvaez and Brooks point to passion for their careers as the main reason why they chose to pursue their graduate education and take on student debt. It’s a long-term investment of their time and money, but one that they believe is essential in helping further their careers.

“Graduate school is a luxury,” Brook said. “It’s an immense investment. You have to do a cost-benefit analysis to figure out if it’s the best thing for you. For me, it was a non-negotiable.”

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