Mary O'Mara is worried about her son.
Every day, the 27-year-old man comes home from his job as a supervisor at a big-box retailer, heads right to his bedroom, and then doesn't emerge again until the morning.
"He just sleeps," O'Mara, 62, said. "He's so depressed."
That's because his life wasn't supposed to unfold this way. At Rutgers University, he majored in marine science and minored in environmental protection policy. On internships, he traveled to Barbados and fought to protect turtles from poachers; in Key West, Florida, he nursed sick dolphins back to health. "From a child, he loved the ocean," O'Mara said. "He's a really smart kid."
When he graduated college, he was offered a position in Florida, training dolphins. He was thrilled, until he saw his monthly student loan bill: more than $1,000.
"That's when he broke," O'Mara said. Instead of following his dreams, he now works as a supermarket manager (where he makes a higher salary than he would as a trainer) and lives at home. "He thinks his life is over," O'Mara said. "He's twenty-seven and he thinks his life is over."
Student loans are having a perverse effect, according to a sparse, but building, body of research. The very debt that's taken on to allow one to pursue their dreams can later morph into a burden that requires them to then abandon those plans and grab a job that will just pay the bills.
Seven in 10 college graduates are in debt from their education. Americans are now more burdened by education loans than they are by credit card or auto debt. And more than half of student loan borrowers say that debt informed their career choice, according to a study by American Student Assistance, an educational nonprofit.