University of Maine junior Connor Scott meets with school officials in Orono last month to discuss student issues. Scott worked, was a resident adviser and now lives at a fraternity house to save on his bills, but he still expects to graduate with at least $10,000 in loans.

University of Maine junior Connor Scott meets with school officials in Orono last month to discuss student issues. Scott worked, was a resident adviser and now lives at a fraternity house to save on his bills, but he still expects to graduate with at least $10,000 in loans. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer

• CONNOR SCOTT

‘I want the freedom that being debt-free affords you’

Connor Scott is trying to keep his student loan debt to a minimum. He’s been raised to be frugal, one of 10 children in his family and one of five siblings currently enrolled at various University of Maine System campuses.

A junior with a double major in business administration and international security at the University of Maine, Scott worked every spare minute when he started college, including 12-hour days for months during the summer as a restaurant waiter and as a residential adviser in exchange for free room and board.

“Freshman and sophomore years, I made it through without taking out any loans. That was a struggle, I tell you what. But I made it,” said Scott, 21.

Last year, however, he decided to devote more time to school and ease up on the work. He’s the campus undergraduate representative to the system board of trustees and an active member of several campus groups.

“I decided the cost-benefit analysis wasn’t worth it. It’s a very unique time in our lives.”

But he got a surprise when he filled out the federal aid application: Because of those long summer hours at Sea Dog Brewery in his hometown of Topsham, it didn’t look like he needed much financial aid.

He was awarded a $500 grant, and told to get loans to cover the rest. Meanwhile, his siblings who didn’t work were awarded large aid packages, he said.

“So I worked my butt off and I’m being punished for it now,” he said, adding that he took out a $2,500 loan, his first but likely not his last.

To cut costs this year, he’s living at the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity for the low $300-a-month rent and is actively looking for a job.

But the idea of graduating with debt still hangs over him.

“I know it’s incredibly low compared to other students’ (debt),” Scott said of what he imagines will be about a $10,000 debt when he graduates. “I want the freedom that being debt-free affords you.”

University of Southern Maine sophomore Micaela Manganello pays out-of-state tuition. A nursing major, her loans may reach $80,000, a figure that “honestly scares me,” she admits.

University of Southern Maine sophomore Micaela Manganello pays out-of-state tuition. A nursing major, her loans may reach $80,000, a figure that “honestly scares me,” she admits. John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

• MICAELA MANGANELLO

‘I always knew it would be a huge financial burden’

Micaela Manganello knows she’s going into debt to get her nursing degree, and that’s a little scary.

But the Connecticut native is resigned to the idea that it’s just what it takes these days.

“I always knew it would be a huge financial burden,” said Manganello, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Southern Maine.

An out-of-state student, Manganello pays about $20,000 a year for tuition, room and board, after getting about $10,000 a year in financial aid. The rest she’s covering with federal loans, and expects to have $80,000 in student loan debt when she gets her degree and becomes a registered nurse. The average mean wage for a registered nurse in Maine is $66,100 a year.

It’s worth it, Manganello said. She loves the USM program, and is using her spare time to launch a new Red Cross Club on campus to provide CPR and other health training and coordinate blood drives. She lives in the dorms and is working with some other students to launch a service-oriented sorority.

She also feels it’s important for her personally to graduate. She’s the first in her family to go to college and saw her parents sacrifice, even as they urged her to pursue her dreams. Her mother is a secretary and her father, who once worked as an emergency medical technician and encouraged her to go into nursing, is now working at a prison.

“They always said, ‘Go to college, go further than we did,'” she said.

“(The student loan debt) honestly scares me,” she admits. “But they’re always going to need nurses.”

Matt Clark decided against a private college in favor of the University of Southern Maine, where his financial aid, on-campus job, and ability to live with his dad drastically cut his costs.

Matt Clark decided against a private college in favor of the University of Southern Maine, where his financial aid, on-campus job, and ability to live with his dad drastically cut his costs. John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

• MATT CLARK

‘I know the crippling loan debt people can end up in’

University of Southern Maine freshman Matt Clark said he thought long and hard about paying for college before deciding where he would go.

For some students, it’s the other way around: Apply to schools where you want to go, then figure out how to pay for it no matter what the tuition costs.

“When I was thinking college, I was thinking smart budget decisions,” said Clark, 18, of Camden.

He didn’t have money saved up for college, and he had heard the horror stories of students going into debt to pay for college.

“I know the crippling loan debt people can end up in,” Clark said. “I am very much trying to avoid the loans.”

He could have gone to Wheaton College in Massachusetts, a private college where tuition, room and board costs about $40,000 a year. Even after a generous financial aid offer, it still would have meant going into debt.

“It was great, but I would have had to take out $10,000 or $20,000 in loans to go there,” he said.

Instead, he picked USM, where a “great financial aid package” covers all but a few hundred dollars a year of his tuition, and he can live with his father in Portland rent-free. He doesn’t have a car, works in the student activities office in a work-study job and makes a point of keeping his costs down.

“I’m really, really hoping I’ll be able to keep this financial plan going,” said Clark, who is undeclared so far but leaning toward political science.

“A few of my family members have said this, and it really resounded with me: ‘It’s not where you go for an education, it’s what you do with it.’ I think that’s really true.”

But all around him, students talk about their debt – and how hopelessly huge the looming debt seems.

“I hear students talk about all the loans they have and I just don’t say anything,” Clark said. “I’ve heard humorous things, like students saying, ‘I want to be a professional student when I grow up, because they can’t force me to pay the loans if I’m a student.'”

“I just feel bad for them, because obviously they just want a quality education. In a competitive world, it’s so important to get that degree,” he said.