Students walking across the University of Wisconsin-Madison stage with diplomas in hand this weekend will face a debt load comparable to the cost of a new vehicle.
The average student loan is now $25,000 for an undergraduate degree, and only one in three UW-Madison students graduates with no debt, said J. Michael Collins, faculty director at the university's Center for Financial Security.
"There's no getting out of them," Collins said. "Student loans will follow you until you pay them off. It's not like other kinds of loans where you can declare foreclosure or bankruptcy."
Collins said recent graduates who have jobs should stick to a budget that includes starting to pay off student loans. Those without a job should talk with their lenders about extending the payment period, he said.
The weight of student loans, which have eclipsed credit cards as the largest source of Americans' debt, is forcing many people to delay major life decisions, Collins said.
"Certainly, we see delays in marriage, having kids, buying a house," he said. "Because you've got to make this student loan payment, that means there's other things you can be spending money on."
At UW-Madison's commencement on Sunday, some graduates who don't have debt said they considered themselves lucky.
"I was actually incredibly fortunate. My parents have taken care of that," said John Paul Bertinet, of Minnesota, who graduated with a communications degree but will join the National Guard in the fall. "I did get help through the National Guard tuition reimbursement, but I have to give almost all of the credit to my parents."
Another graduate, Jennifer Wagner, said she would be back in Madison for medical school in the fall.
"It's sort of sad that it's ending, but since I'll still be in Madison, I'm not as sad because I'll still be here," said Wagner, who also graduated without outstanding student loans. "It sets you up and allows you to continue on without worries, but I know (graduating without debt) isn't possible for a lot of people."