Soaring student debt sparks response from Catholic colleges [CNA]

#1, Colo., Jul 24, 2014 / 04:23 am (CNA/EWTN News).- With a national student loan debt of slightly more than $1 trillion, American colleges may have to start re-thinking the way they do business.

Recent graduates of Catholic colleges are among those feeling the weight of student loan debt. Karissa O'Hearn and her husband Joe both graduated from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., a few years ago. As a student, Karissa said she did not realize how signing for loan after loan would affect her financial future.

“(Financial aid offices) let you sign a piece of paper saying you’re responsible for 30,000 + dollars in debt, but (they do not) take the time to tell you what that really means,” Karissa told CNA. “For the next 20+ years you could be paying that off, depending on who you marry or what job you get.”

According to Forbes, nearly 12 percent of all student loans are currently delinquent by 90 days or more, making them the type of debt most likely to be in default.

A recent limited-release documentary from CNN films entitled “Ivory Tower” even goes so far as to question the value of a college degree, given the present condition of loan defaults coupled with ever-increasing costs of tuition.

Students with tens to even hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt talked about their struggles to find any job, let alone jobs that would utilize their degrees and help them rise out of debt.

Some professors and experts featured in the film even wonder if there will be some sort of collapse within the college system, leaving the last schools standing to pick up the pieces and forge a more sustainable model of higher education.

If such a collapse were to happen, it is likely that private Catholic colleges, whose tuition is higher than state schools, would take a hit.

But like most national issues, the college debt problem is not simple, and neither are the solutions. CNA spoke with three of the nation's top Catholic colleges to see how they are dealing with the student debt crisis.  

**The struggle: A Catholic college student's view**

Karissa O'Hearn represents a fairly typical situation for college graduates.

O'Hearn started out at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), but transferred to Benedictine College in Kansas after her sophomore year. She was drawn to the close community feel and active faith life of the college every time she visited her then-boyfriend (now-husband), Joe, there.

“I felt really called to be at Benedictine even though there were really great things going on at UNL, it just seemed to fit, it felt like where I was supposed to be,” Karissa said.

She attended Benedictine for three years and earned degrees in special education and elementary education. Joe earned dual degrees in philosophy and theology a year earlier than Karissa, and the couple married soon after his graduation.  

Finding a job after graduation was easy for Karissa, especially in the area of special education. For Joe, however, things proved difficult.

“He was working jobs a high school student could be easily hired to do, and that was really hard on him because he’s questioning, ‘What about my education? What is that value? How did I spend so much money on school and now I’m getting paid minimum wage?’”

The couple moved back to Grand Island, Neb., after Karissa graduated, where Joe worked as a phlebotomist for the American Red Cross. They then moved to Lincoln so Joe could work on his master’s in order to be able to teach philosophy at the college level. Between the move, taking on more loans for graduate school, and a new baby, the O’Hearns realized they were not longer able to afford the $1,000 a month that was going towards their debt.

They started to default on their loans. Even though Karissa was working full-time for Lincoln Public Schools, times were tight.

“We would be going, ‘Oh my gosh we can’t go get groceries, we can’t do this, we can’t do anything,’ we would be panicking because we were waiting for my paycheck to come in at the end of the month,” Karissa said, “and that was really a scary time for us, and it got so scary that we just stopped making payments on our loans completely, which is not good because our credit score starts dropping.”

After a year, Joe left grad school.

“It was just putting us further into debt because he couldn’t get funded, and the guarantee for a job as a philosophy professor just isn’t there,” Karissa said. Their combined debt now is “well over $70,000.”

Going into college, Karissa said she felt unprepared and uneducated about what it would take to afford college and how loans would impact her finances years into the future. Taking out more loans to afford another semester sounded like a good idea at the time.

“For me it was like ‘oh okay, there’s my answer to that prayer, I’ll take out a loan,’” she said.

Karissa also said the college system seems to favor the very disadvantaged and the upper middle class, while the lower middle class seems to struggle the most.

“You have people like myself and Joseph and tons of other people that are lower middle class, where our parents didn’t go to college, they don’t prepare, they don’t have a college fund waiting for us, they don’t have all these things,” she said.

Finances have become the topic of conversation among fellow Benedictine graduates who are going through similar struggles.

“When we talk about the stress of adulthood, that’s what we talk about, we don’t talk as much about kids and other financial things, we talk about our loans,” she said.  

If she could go back, Karissa said she would have thought to try to earn better grades in high school. She would have thought to be educated on the financial terminology surrounding college loans. And, she would have been more up front in asking about the real cost of private college over three years.

“I would have been fine at UNL, I fit in well enough there, but it’s hard because when you’re discerning it’s like, ‘What does God want from me?’, the first thing you don’t want to think about is finances,” she said.

“You think, ‘Oh God has all the money in the world so I’m not going to think about finances,’ but in a lot of ways we’re still called to be responsible for our finances and that is of God too.”

“I really value my time at Benedictine, I’m so grateful for it, I’m so grateful for the lifelong friends that I made there, and for the encounters I had with Christ there,” Karissa said.

“But I don’t know, had I recognized the financial burden, I’m not sure if my educational decisions might have been different.”

**Benedictine College**

Since the O’Hearns have graduated, Benedictine College has responded to the need for students to be more educated about loans and financial terminology.

Tony Tanking, director of financial aid at the school, said he started teaching a class on personal finances last year.

“We’re trying to touch base with more students at an earlier stage by incorporating some financial literacy within our curriculum,” Tanking told CNA.

“Not only do we go over aspects of different parts of their lives with regards to applying for loans and dealing with credit cards (in the class), we also go over terminology and aspects of student loans that those students will be dealing with when they get out of school.”

While the class is currently an elective, it is something Tanking hopes becomes part of the required curriculum for every student.

The increasing expectations students have for a college experience is part of what keeps costs high, he said. Students at Catholic colleges are looking for what a college can offer them academically, spiritually and socially.

“When you take into account all of those things, it’s a challenge for the school because while you’re providing a high level of performance for those students, you also have the accountability of keeping up on buildings, making sure that you’re staffed properly, and making sure that you have competitive wages for your faculty,” Tanking said.

Students who are concerned about their finances should establish a relationship with their college’s financial aid office early on, he suggested.

“Focus on communication, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Talk to your financial aid office, that is an office that is available for free for the students to come in, whether they come in as a freshman or as a sophomore or junior or senior,” Tanking said.

“If they develop a relationship with that office, that office has their information and can help them with understanding what their situation is.”

Tanking said he even has students who will call him and ask for financial advice after they’ve graduated.

“There’s no greater satisfaction than knowing I’ve had an impact on these students and I’m helping them,” he said. “So keep communicating, keep communicating.”

**Ave Maria University**

Ave Maria University, a Catholic college in Florida, announced in the fall of 2013 that they would be cutting their tuition by $5,000, effective for the 2014-2015 school year. Jim Towey, president of Ave Maria University, said he believes colleges have a moral responsibility to keep costs low.

“You have to look at the morality of a system of higher education that’s placing so much debt on the shoulders of our graduates, even if they’re willing to borrow the money,” Towey told CNA. “You have to ask questions about whether it’s right for a system like that to lead to that outcome.”

Part of the reason Ave Maria University was able to make cuts is the fact that it is still a relatively new and growing university.

“We made a number of cuts back in 2011, we cut our budget by 3.6 million dollars, we laid off a couple dozen people and eliminated positions,” Towey said. “We went through a process of right-sizing the university. I don’t think a lot of universities ever go through that exercise but when you’re a young university you can.”

The process of right-sizing included evaluating the worth of some administrative positions, as well as making sure professors were teaching a full class load.

“Some of these universities where a professor’s teaching one class a semester, is that working for the professor? Sure. Does that help his research? Sure. Does that drive up the cost of that education for the students? Yes,” Towey said.

The current average debt of an Ave Maria graduate is around $22,000 a year, almost $10,000 lower than the average private college graduate. One way the college protects potential students from over-borrowing is by looking at their ability to pay before they are accepted to the school through a program called CAP.

“Are they a fit with our Catholic culture, that’s the ‘C’. Are they academically capable of succeeding, that’s the ‘A’, and ‘P’ can they pay?” Towey explained. “And sometimes private, non-profit universities will admit students where there’s a real question as to how that family is going to afford four years of that education.”

**The University of Dallas**

Despite the national default rates, there are several people in the field of higher education who say things are not nearly as bleak as they appear. A recent New York Times piece examined many of the cliché arguments surrounding the issue, finding that tuition prices have actually not out-paced inflation as is often believed. Most students still carry a moderate amount of debt, with the highest burden falling on those who drop out. History, the article says, is still on the side of those who earn a degree.

Taryn Anderson, director of financial aid for the University of Dallas, agrees that the issue has been blown out of proportion recently.

“I was at a conference last week for NASFA (National Association of Student Financial Aid Advisors) and they had done some research based on some of the media that was coming out,” Anderson told CNA, “(and they) found that the types of loan debt that are featured in the media, of people who have $100,000 or $200,000 is not the norm, it is a very small percentage that actually have that.”  

The national average debt burden a student borrower graduates with is close to $30,000. Students who graduate with loans from the Catholic honors college in Texas are on par with that.

“(Student) debt upon graduation for us is not higher than the national average...and our cohort default rate is much lower than the national average,” Anderson said, “which to us signifies that the degree is worth that amount of borrowing.”

“Now, is it worth double that? Probably not. I don’t think it’s worth borrowing $80-$100,000 and most students are not doing that.”

Part of the debt problem, she said, are families and students who are willing to over-borrow, even despite advice not to do so. Anderson – who meets with potential UD students who are looking at borrowing – says the current system in place requires that she allow students to take out loans regardless of amount.

“The way the federal government is set up, we have to give them our cost of attendance, and we have to allow them to borrow up to that much and we have no say in stopping them from doing that,” Anderson said.

And while Anderson said she tries to help as many students stay at UD as possible by getting creative with financial aid and housing arrangements, she is not afraid to be honest with students.

“I’m not opposed to telling the family this is not the right school for them. I’m definitely not telling the family we’re the cheapest option and they’re going to have to borrow wherever they go,” Anderson said.

Like many of her co-workers, Anderson has attended Catholic school all of her life and deeply values what UD can offer in terms of academics as well as spiritual formation. There are a lot of ways to make Catholic college affordable, even if it means not choosing UD, she said.

“There are options even among Catholic schools that are less expensive, there are options that are closer to your home,” she said. “There’s great Catholic universities all over the country so even just within choosing a Catholic university there are ways that families can keep their costs down.”

Full article…


There is a lot of difference in costs among Catholic universities. I do think students’ expectations and parents’ willingness to help are both problems.

I attended a Jesuit school for undergraduate work and another for graduate school. I did have one small loan at the very end.

But the facilities back then were almost laughable compared to the palaces they have now made of those very same schools. It simply takes my breath away to see them now. And the dormitories are massively more lush than when I attended.

They have spent an astronomical amount of money between when I attended and now, and one needs to ask whether it was worth it from a realistic student perspective.

I do have considerable admiration for the University of Dallas. It’s pretty generous with real student aid, and it’s a long way from being an overbuilt palace. I have one granddaughter there. She loves it despite the fact that the campus is pretty utilitarian and the amenities pretty sparse compared to other schools. She does have a significant scholarship. The school is pretty faithfully Catholic too. Academically, it’s pretty demanding.

My son attended Ave Maria for law school. Got a very good scholarship to do it. REALLY plain facilities then. Nice now, adequate, but not gold-plated like so many are. His daughter is pretty young, but he wants to send her there. Faithfully Catholic school too.

One of my daughters graduated from a Jesuit university. Had a smallish scholarship. It was a major struggle, but her earnings and I paid her whole way through. One of my daughters attended a jesuit U as well, but ended up with a smallish debt, now paid off. One attended a state U and owes nothing.

As a parent, you really need to anticipate college costs a long way off, live a very simple life for years and be willing to give up your money when your kid goes to college. Do that, and your child will not likely have a huge debt upon graduation.

Jobs after college? For that, we need to run the Democrats out of the White House and have the Repubs take over the senate. I was always a Democrat myself until it became clear to me that no faithful Catholic could be one anymore. But that party is now so far left of where it was when I was active in it, it’s not even remotely the same party. it’s an ideologically-driven “rich man’s party” now, and suppresses jobs with uncaring abandon.


It is the next big bubble to burst. Student loan debt is going to avalanche and cause serious economic problems. Universities will also see hard times as there will be real pressure brought on tuition costs and fees.

Parents need to educate themselves and help steer their kids right regarding college. Students need to get jobs to help offset or pay for tuition and other costs instead of just sitting around taking 12 credit hours and racking up $30k a year in debt.

And parents also need to knock some sense into their kids’ heads about their majors. The article almost made my eyes bleed. The young man in the article was SURPRISED that philosophy and theology degrees don’t pay?!?!??!?!?! REALLY?!?!?!

There are VERY few majors that are worth going $50k-$100+k in debt for. The return on them is not worth it.


To us it’s more important that our kids go to catholic school and with this any saving for their college is not going to be huge

I graduated with Debt. My wife graduated with debt and I imagine our kids will as well


I agree about the choice of degrees.

People REALLLLLLLY need to start taking some responsibility for their decisions. There are many factors out of students control. One that isn;t however, is choice of major.

Undergraduate degrees in theology or philosophy are a wasteland for practical jobs, especially for a man who likely how has a family to support. The importance of studying good theology and chalssical philosophy can not be overstated, but an entire degree?

When I was little, engineering was ripe for jobs - it was mechanical, electrical, aeornautical, and more.

When I was in college - engineering was ripe for jobs - mechanical, electrical, nuclear, chemical, fire protection, and more.

Today, engineering is ripe for jobs - mechanical, civil, electrical, software, computer, and systems.

This it not intended to shill for engineering, but to point out that as a youngster, my mother drilled into me the importance of a marketable degree, and math was my forte so engineering made sense. Statistics on jobs and salaries have been around forever - why are people surprised?

Too often people (IMO) treat degrees and a job as things that we must love first and foremost. I see them as means to an end for me in my role as a man. To shirk my responsibility as a hsuband or father and abandon my professions because I am more passionate about something else may seem noble, but I find it selfish frankly. I have the best gig in the world in terms of the work i do, the stability, the compensation, and more. I would never be so selfish as to say “I’m going to give it up and go be a personal trainer because I really loves fitness” because I’d be placing my desires over the needs of my family. That’s what hobbies are for, IMO.


Agreed. A few years ago when my oldest and I had just finished a college visit, we reviewed that college’s brochure that listed all of the majors they offered. My son and I spent a couple of hours classifying each major as either “pays well”, “just get by”, or “will be on welfare”. It was certainly valuable conversation to us to have PRIOR to his entering college.


I disagree, I know many art, English and communication majors who are not making the engineering money, but are completely happy with their lives, and yes with their debts.

Life is too short to just do something “for the money.” Do what you love and follow your dreams.


Agree-but don’t run up $100,000 in debt for a degree that earns you little more than a High Scholl grad gets


Quite a few more who are not. What’s worse is they will never get out from under that rock when it’s time to act on their dream of marriage, family formation and buying a house because they cannot discharge that debt like they could with other forms of debt.

To look at the bigger picture, this is what happens when the supply of credit to buy something increases, well guess what, the prices of that something will rise to meet the credit available. Just as it does in the real estate markets. What’s worse is that since the debt is guaranteed by the government, the winners are the colleges and the banks while the losers are the students themselves. When the loan is guaranteed, the colleges and the banks don’t have to worry about the credit worthiness of the borrower.

Hence it should not surprise anyone that colleges have helped themselves to this bounty to build all those shining new facilities. I haven’t stepped on my old college campus in years, but I’m told I would barely recognize it today. So I refuse to donate to them, they’re doing fine, living high on the hog. Hopefully for not much longer.

When I finished school, my debt was about the size of a moderately expensive car. Easily paid for. Now typical debt is about the size of a mortgage on a condo outside of the major real estate markets. Think how much that inhibits family formation and you will have some idea just how evil this is …


I haven’t been back to my college since I graduated. I have even managed to get them to quit calling me asking for money. I finally told them "Look we had a business deal-I Paid you $10,000 and you granted me a degree. Our deal is complete. Im not going to ask you for money and you shouldn’t be asking me


Actually, weren’t both Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner english majors? English majors if the can pick up some business smarts can do very well.


That is a fine approach if that suits the person in question, but it is unfair to then complain about the dearth of jobs in your field of passion, or the weight of your debts inccurred, just as it is unfair for a person who works “for the money” to complain that their work isn’t as fulfilling as their recreational pursuits.

Neither should be an expectation for those two people.

I spent years as a relatively accomplished orchestral trumpeter, but had to make a decision when it came to a career. I chose to forgo professional music, knowing that it is frankly more fulfilling to me than most engineering jobs. But I accept that and do not complain.

In the end, we are called to serve God by working our hardest at whatever we do, and giving Him glory through our efforts.


Try very connected English majors. From their Wikipedia pages:

Both attended Dartmouth.

Geithner was a 3rd generation Dartmouth attendee through his father and paternal grandfather; he got his Master’s at Johns Hopkins. His mother was descended from the Mayflower migration; his maternal grandfather was an executive at Ford and an advisor to Eisenhower. In addition, he is known to have met Barack Obama at least once in the 80’s in Indonesia.

Paulson married an heiress who went to Wellesley College; he went on to earn his MBA at Harvard, following that with his first job on the staff of the Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Pentagon. You don’t do that last part without connections …

dey ain’t no broke English majors from Podunk State, dat is fer shur …


Money is base. How much is ones happiness worth. I am a social worker, don’t make much but love what I do my wife is a scientist and makes most of the income. She also loves her career. I will encourage my kids to do what they love


It has at least mildly interested me why majors like English or Philosophy or even Political Science are considered worthless degrees now. Perhaps they are, though i don’t know for sure. Back when I graduated from college (English major, Philosophy major, Poly Sci minor) people with those degrees readily got jobs. “Word crafting” and “cultural literacy” were considered of some value at least in business then, and in some other things. Not now, I guess.

I don’t pretend to be an accomplished literary person or a philosopher, but it’s at least mildly disconcerting when one discovers that almost nobody has any idea what “MacBeth” is about, let alone having even a bowing acquaintence with the “Novels of Manners” or the American naturalists. But I’m reasonably convinced that almost nobody has read any of that or has any understanding of the wisdom that underlies those works.

Strange to tell, back then, it was believed that acquired wisdom (as opposed to, simply, skills) had value.


In my opinion there is nothing wrong with earning money as long as you keep your ego in check. Money is great for buying food and shelter, terrible for buying meaning in your life and love and respect from others. I do think it is important to be a good money manager, because if you can manage money well you don’t have to necessarily have to chase the big money.


My daughter attends a theological faculty in Austria. Her tuition is €6,000 per year ($8,083.20 at today’s exchange rate). Her room is €2,000 per year ($2,694.40 at today’s exchange rate). Including two round trip plane tickets a year (one at the beginning and end of the year and one to bring her home for Christmas break), her education is still far cheaper than at any Catholic school I’m familiar with in the US. (As a comparison, Christendom tuition alone is $23,200, Mt St Mary’s is $35,021, CUA is $39,200)

I’ve looked at other universities in Europe. The costs are very similar,in most cases, to the place where I’m sending my daughter. (For example, here is the tuition breakdown for the Angelicum in Rome and the tuition breakout for the National University of Ireland, Maynooth – note: in the case of NUI, if you are an EU resident, the tuition is significantly subsidized…but even unsubsidized, it’s less than €6,000 per year.

(By the way, while the only thing taught by my daughter’s faculty is theology, the other two I listed have a wide variety of courses)

If you are looking at an alternative, I would look into it (if, for no other reason, living abroad for 3 to 5 years is an education in of itself)



Ha! This is off topic, but I have always found it amusing. I knew an older professional entrepreneur who was on a bank board. He was befriended by a very young, new, bank executive, who seemed over-anxious to make a quick killing in something or other outside his job at the bank, and knew this entrepreneur had done very well in investing. Anyway, at a point, this entrepreneur told the young fellow: “Don’t worry about it. You’ll make a million dollars. Just stop trying to make it all at once.”


I agree with you. You should do what you’re passionate about.

Having said that, hopefully what you’re passionate about will put a roof over your head and food on your table. Otherwise you may need to compromise and do what you’re passionate about on your own time and do something you’re a little less passionate about to pay the bills :slight_smile:

(Of course, when making educational decisions, it’s always helpful to do consider the return on your educational investment)


I totally agree

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