student loan debt

Tackling Student Loan Debt: State, Employers Step In

Millions are struggling to pay back those loans, an investigation by the NBC Owned Television Stations found.

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Student loan debt is a financial roadblock for millions of Americans. It keeps them from buying homes, starting a family and even seeking medical care.

"I think about having a house every day," said Sarah Belton, of Manchester.

Belton is slowly chipping away at the $80,000 she borrowed for her education. Her payments were around $600 a month until she enrolled in an income-based repayment plan. Some days Belton fears she'll never get out of debt, but said she doesn't regret pursing her nursing degree.

Belton is even considering going back to school for a Master's Degree, even though it would mean taking on more debt.

"College was worth it. For what I want to do and what my passion is, without question," she said.

But college is not a good investment for everyone. An NBC analysis of federal student loan data indicates the borrowers most at risk of defaulting on their loans are actually those who borrowed the least. One study found that people owing $10,000 or less for college were five times more likely to default than people owing $100,000.

The data show these small debtors typically come from low-income families and attend for-profit colleges or two-year public colleges to learn a trade. If they can't earn a living quickly, they have few resources to pay the loan.

And pursuing higher education in Connecticut can be especially costly.

Data gathered by The Institute for College Access & Success show that in 2018, the average debt for graduates of a four-year college or university in Connecticut was the highest in the country at $38,669.

Nationally, the class of 2018 graduated with an average debt of $29,200.

"We know that affordability is just about the biggest barrier out there," said Sen. Will Haskell (D-CT 26), co-chair of the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee.

Haskell sponsored a bill that would allow graduates of Connecticut high schools to attend any of the state's community colleges without having to take out loans.

"They have to fill out the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. They have to apply for all the state and institutional aid that may be available. And if there's a gap that remains then the state will make sure that that student doesn't have to pay the gap," said Haskell.

The program will be overseen by the Board of Regents and will cost an estimated $6.1 million dollars in its first year. The governor's office is evaluating the feasibility of an internet lottery to offset those costs.

"This is personal for me because I see a lot of people my age when they graduate from college deciding not to start their careers in this state," Haskell said. "We know that community college graduates are the most likely to stick around after graduation."

Haskell said the program is on track to launch next fall.

Starting in 2022, the state will also offering a tax incentive to employers who offer student loan payment assistance to their workers.

Barnum Financial Group in Shelton is ahead of the curve. In September, Barnum began offering loan contributions to eligible employees through a partnership with personal finance company SoFi.

"We're looking at it as a retention tool. We hope they'll stay," said VP of Human Resources at Barnum Financial Group Michelle Hite.

Barnum will contribute up to $7,200 over a three year period toward a qualifying employee's principal loan balance. Employees are still responsible for their monthly loan payments.

Hite said 32 young advisers are enrolled in the program.

One of them is Matthew Nelson, who started with the company in August. He said the SoFi at Work Program was one of the reasons he chose to work at Barnum.

"It's not only what I owe, it's an extra incentive to get off to an early start in my career," Nelson said.

Material by NBC Owned Television Stations Data Editor Ronald Campbell was used in this report.

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