STILLWATER — Alexandra Hall doesn't regret taking out student loans to pay for her degree at Oklahoma State University.
But when she went through an online exit counseling session at the end of the spring semester and saw the words “Total Owed: $37,000” flash across her computer screen, she did feel a bit of panic.
“It's kind of scary,” she said.
When she walked across the stage at Gallagher-Iba Arena two weeks ago, Hall joined thousands of Oklahoma college students who graduated with a mountain of student debt.
The rising cost of college and an increase in the number of students who go to graduate school have contributed to massive growth in student debt over the last decade.
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, student debt almost tripled between 2004 and 2012, climbing to $966 billion nationwide in the fourth quarter of 2012. During the same period, the number of student borrowers in the United States increased by 70 percent.
Nationwide, the average student loan balance has grown from $15,651 in the first quarter of 2005 to $24,803 in the fourth quarter of 2012, surpassing both auto loans and credit card debt.
Oklahoma's average student debt is below the national average, coming to $22,610 in 2012, according to Federal Reserve Bank of New York figures.
Hall, 28, went to college for two years after high school, then left without finishing her degree. After a few years in the working world, she decided to finish a degree in Spanish.
When she went back to college, she didn't get any financial help from her parents, she said. For a while, she tried working part time while she took classes part time. But she wanted to finish her degree more quickly, so she left her job and enrolled at OSU full-time.
Although she had an on-campus job to help pay for school, Hall said she couldn't have paid for her education without loans.
“For me, it was a critical part,” she said.
Although she's graduated from OSU, Hall won't have to begin paying down her loans immediately. She plans to enroll in the nursing program at Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City in the fall — “So, more debt,” she said.
Because nurses are in high demand, Hall said, she thinks a degree in nursing, combined with a degree in Spanish, will put her in a good position to find a job when she graduates from OSU-OKC.
Although she'll be paying down her student loans for years to come, Hall said she thinks the decisions she made will pay off.
“With the knowledge I have now, I wouldn't hesitate to make the same choice again,” she said.
Independent student loan consultant Heather Jarvis said it's important for graduating students to get an inventory of all their student loans as soon as possible. Students with federal loans can find records on the National Student Loan Data System website, www.nslds.ed.gov.
Students with private loans can see those loans on their credit reports, available for free at annualcreditreport.com.
It's also a good idea for borrowers to make sure their loan servicers have their most current contact information. If a student moves after graduation and the loan servicer doesn't have his or her new address, it could cause problems when the loans go into repayment, said Jarvis, who has written several columns on student loans for national publications.
Most federal loans offer a six-month grace period before students must begin repaying. During that period, borrowers should review their repayment options and find a plan that works well for them.
“If you don't select your own repayment plan, one will be assigned to you, and it might not be the best one for you,” Jarvis said.
For students who have a difficult time finding work after they graduate, income-based repayment might be a good option. That option gives students a more manageable repayment option than the standard payment plan, she said.
Students who have private student loans may find that they don't have the same options, such as grace periods, for repayment that federal loans offer. Those students should speak with their loan servicers to see what options they have, she said.