Congratulations–and Condolences? Graduates and Student Debt

This May, millions of young adults in Canada and the US will don caps and gowns and happily wave their high school, college, or grad school diplomas. But at some point, the joy of these celebrations will be tempered by the reality of their financial situations, whether they are completing an educational program or preparing to begin a new one.

The amount of debt amassed by US and Canadian students is staggering. According to the Canadian Federation of Students, student loan debt in that country far surpasses $15 million dollars. ( In the US, the total is more than $1 trillion. ( Want to make that a bit more personal? If you are a student in Ontario or the Maritimes, expect the IOU slip that accompanies your degree to be around $28,000: that’s the average. Your US friends are in about the same situation, with an average of $29,000 debt in student ledgers. (

If there’s any good news, perhaps it is that those in the government and business sectors are beginning to recognize the systemic issues that are contributing to growing student debt, including a lackluster economy, a reduction in job opportunities, and shrinking government allocations to higher learning institutions that affect tuition costs. While the debates take place at these higher levels, individual students can make choices that will keep educational debt as low as possible. Here are a few to consider.

Whether you are getting ready to begin a new chapter in your educational career, you’re in the middle of your educational story, or if you’ve taken your last walk across the stage, create a reasonable budget—and stick to it. If you are currently in school, create a plan where your personal expenses stay out of the “pay back later” column. If you’re in the working world, make sure to include any debt repayment in your budget.

In both your large and small financial decisions, keep the big picture in mind. Are you in high school and have a summer or part-time job? Save for the future now, even if it seems like a small amount. Have a career in mind? Check out the many educational possibilities. The best one for you might not be at your “dream school” but may be the best financial option.

If you are feeling overwhelmed with managing your finances, don’t try to tackle them alone. Ask a trusted friend, family member, pastor, or mentor to help you find good financial counseling—and you can find it for little or no charge.

High-school student Carol, college student Erica, and college graduate Justin share their stories about education and finances. You can watch them here:

Living without debt can provide emotional relief and create new financial possibilities. For people of faith, it expands our opportunities to live and serve as we are called. In the book of First Peter, the writer says, “as servants of God, live as free people” (I Peter 2:16). The actions encouraged in the following verses of that chapter can be accomplished without a credit card, cash, or check. But freeing our focus from financial difficulties allows us to shift our vision to new vistas of outreach and care for others.

(P.S. are you a seminary student? Many seminaries are currently developing programs to help their students with financial matters, thanks to grants from Lilly Endowment Inc. Check with your seminary to see if they received a grant and how they are working to address this issue.)

Post written by:

Marcia Shetler, Executive Director/CEO

Ecumenical Stewardship Center

This blog is a component of the Ecumenical Stewardship Center’s COMPASS initiative to engage young adults in conversations about faith and finances. Like what you see and want to know/do more? Visit the COMPASS web page and join the COMPASS community on Facebook.