Debt is always at the back of medical student Aliza Patino’s mind.
“I look at it and say, OK I’ve got to work toward paying this off,” said Patino, who plans to graduate from the University of Texas Medical Branch in 2020. “I’ve got to do well in school so I can make that money.”
Patino takes on about $11,000 in debt each year, she said. For herself and some of her friends, debt has even affected career path decisions, she said.
Texas students in four-year institutions graduated with on average $30,516 in debt last year, a trend that could prevent students from taking the next financial steps after college, such as buying a house or a car, according to a spring Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board report.
For medical students, this gap could be even larger. The median education debt for the medical students graduating in 2017 was $192,000, according to a September report from the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Accumulated debt could shut graduates out from a mortgage, raise a red flag for future employers or prevent students from sitting for a licensing exam, Galveston College Director of Financial Aid Meghann Nash said.
“It’s very difficult to make students understand the repercussions of the amount of student loans that they’re taking out,” Nash said. “Just because a student is eligible for $10,000 in student loans, doesn’t mean they need $10,000 to go to school and be successful.”
Students need to be more creative in budgeting their living expenses, she said.
In 2017, 60 percent of bachelor degree-earning graduates left school with debt, according to the coordinating board study.
Texas ranks 33rd in the nation in average student debt, according to the Institution for College Access and Success data. The nonprofit estimates Texas’ average debt as $26,824 in 2017. The organization estimates the national average for debt is $28,650.
Some students don’t want to think about it, said Edward Munoz, student government president at College of the Mainland.
“It kind of confuses people,” Munoz said. “It’s a whole bunch of data.”
Munoz also takes classes at the University of Houston. He anticipates working for a few years after finishing classes before applying to law school, he said.
Minimizing student debt takes some creative thinking, said David Gardner, deputy commissioner for academic planning and policy with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
“We still have far too many students who pay for more hours than they need,” Gardner said.
Graduating sooner or starting out at community colleges are options more students should explore, he said. Texas isn’t as bad as other states in terms of debt, but students still need to budget, he said.
He shows students the earning potentials of various career paths and sometimes, these numbers change a student’s mind, he said.
Patino agrees that debt is stressful, saying sometimes it changes a student’s career path.
“Will I make that money or not to pay it back?” Patino said. “Or will I be able to live comfortably while making my payments on the loan?”
Problems can also arise if students forget to account for living costs, said Nick Kilmer, assistant director of the Money Education Center at Texas A&M University. He advises students in both College Station and Galveston.
Jessica Ukwuacha, a student at the medical branch in Galveston, lives with her parents for this reason, she said.
“I’m stressing out about how I’m going to make end’s meet because I’m already tight,” Ukwuacha said. “I’m already behind probably two to three weeks.”
She already has loans from a previous bachelor’s degree at the University of Houston, she said.
Many students shy away from any kind of debt, Kilmer said.
“Debt is definitely bad but in some regards it’s a necessary tool,” Kilmer said.
Munoz knows friends who simply haven’t enrolled in college because of fear of debt, he said.
“I do feel that it is causing them not to finish their education or causing them not to even come to school,” Munoz said.
Munoz has about $3,000 in student debt and has friends with up to $15,000, he said.
“It does bother me and it does worry me,” Munoz said.