BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - When someone makes the decision to go to college, they go with the dream of graduating to get a high-paying job. But what happens when things don't go as planned and they are left with suffocating student loan debt?
"My student loan is like a black rain cloud right now," said Sarah Haydel.
Haydel graduated from ITI Technical College in Baton Rouge with a degree in medical office administration. She borrowed close to $20,000 to go to school. She paid off one-fourth of it but deferred the rest for a couple of years. With interest tacked on, her debt has doubled and she now sits on a student loan debt of $33,000.
"At this point in time, I wish that cloud - I could just blow it away," she said. "It's something I'm going to have to chip at little by little. I mean it's just something I'm going to have to live with at this point."
She has a job in the profession she studied, but chipping away at debt can still be very burdensome. Especially when factoring in the basic essentials of life, like buying a home.
"I struggle with that note along with the other necessities. Items such as your utilities," Haydel said. "Everyone needs a phone so I have to have a cell phone for communications. I have to have my car, my insurance there, health insurance for me, other necessity items [and] just healthcare costs in general has been hitting me. But along with that, when you tack on about $300 in your student loans, I'm sitting pretty close to broke."
Southeastern grad Seth Bourgeois left school with more than $25,000 in student loans. He has paid off about 25 percent of that amount, but he is still left with a good chunk of the debt.
"If I lose my job or something I know I'm not going to be able to pay them and they're going to deferment and then my credit goes bad. It's just I know they have to be paid. It's just a big debt," he said.
Louisiana natives Haydel and Bourgeois are not alone. In fact, more than 41 million Americans have college loan debt that totals more than $1.3 trillion. That amount exceeds credit card and auto loan debt.
"We absolutely are in a student debt crisis," said Alan Collinge.
Collinge runs the website StudentLoanJustice.org. He explained the crisis doesn't just affect students bearing the debt. It also plays a heavy hand in the economy.
"We're already seeing family formation stalled, major life purchases, homes and automobiles stalled. People are taking employment they would otherwise not want to take. The vicious nature of whatever it may be to make money rather than do what they went to school for," he said.
The federal government tracks colleges with the most students having problems by identifying each school's repayment rate. That's the percentage of students succeeding in paying their loans back.
The average repayment rate across the nation is 61 percent. Statewide, Louisiana comes in at 54 percent. Still above some of the state's neighbors, like Mississippi who is at 48 percent, Arkansas who is at 52 percent and Texas who falls at 53 percent.
Comparing that statistic to schools in Baton Rouge, Camelot College has the lowest repayment rate in the city and the entire state, with just 12 percent of students repaying their loans. Virginia College has the second lowest in the city at 30 percent. Baton Rouge Community College ranks third lowest with 38 percent.
In comparison, LSU has the highest repayment rate at 89 percent. Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond comes in at 77 percent. ITI Technical College has 66 percent. Southern falls just below the state average with just 51 percent.
On a mobile device? Click here to view an interactive version of the graphic.
Right now, the government judges schools by what's called a "Cohort Default Rate" which looks at students in a three-year window of time who have defaulted on their loans.
The White House said those numbers though are "susceptible to artificial manipulation." Still, under federal guidelines, schools with a default rate at or above 30 percent for three consecutive years can lose eligibility for federal aid.
All of the schools mentioned fall under that 30 percent threshold so they are technically considered in the clear.
So who is to blame when students aren't paying their loans back?
9News reached out to each of these schools for comment, but only ITI chose to speak on camera.
"The school has no control over who defaults or who doesn't, but we're held to that standard and we try to do the best we can because we do understand it's the taxpayers' money," said Joe Martin, president of ITI Technical College.
Martin said any student interested in enrolling at ITI is made sure of what consequences come along with borrowing money. That includes financial aid counseling before beginning classes and upon graduating.
"You can't measure people following through with their commitment and that hurts sometimes when you see someone come in with these great ambitions and then life hits them or whatever and then they lose their dream. But you know we try to help people every day with that dream here at ITI," he said.
He also explained ITI's financial aid counselors follow up with students after graduation to see if they are employed and whether they are keeping up with their loan payments. If not, the advisors provide resources for students to gain employment and start making a dent in their loans.
Both Haydel and Bourgeois said they do not regret going to college or borrowing money to do so. Though they fear that if they cannot continue making payments, this debt cloud will hang over them for the rest of their lives. Eventually disabling them from reaching life's big benchmarks like buying a home.
So Bourgeois has advice for future borrowers. He said to make sure they fully understand exactly what they are signing up for and know they will be in the hole as soon as they graduate.
"It's not free money. You can't just live off that money. It's a loan you have to pay it back. They need to understand cause I sure didn't when I was 18-19, I know that," he said.