Stress Surrounding Student Debt Impacts Loyola Students and Staff

For many college students, the stress of school does not end with summer vacation or even graduation. A recent study from the University of South Carolina found that student loan debt is associated with poorer psychological functioning both while enrolled in a post-secondary institution and in early adulthood.

Loyola University Chicago is one of the many private institutions in the United States where tuition hovers around $40,000 per year. This price tag poses a problem to not only the students at Loyola, who worry about paying back their debt on top of keeping up with school work and finding a job after graduation, but also the university staff. Advisers do their best to give students the support they need, but are limited by strict government policies and the general issues surrounding the modern cost of education.

According to a 2014 report from the American College Health Association, finances are the second most popular cause of trauma in college students. This places financial difficulties above relationship issues, difficulties with sleep and career-related issues, as indicated by the graph below.

Figure 1: Percentages of Students Experiencing Trauma in Specific Life Areas. GRAPH CREATED IN EXCEL/INFO FROM AMERICAN COLLEGE HEALTH ASSOCIATION.
Figure 1: Percentages of Students Experiencing Trauma in Specific Life Areas. GRAPH CREATED IN EXCEL/INFO FROM AMERICAN COLLEGE HEALTH ASSOCIATION.

Casey Flynn, a freshman at Loyola, is among the 68 percent of Loyola students who took out a loan to allay freshman year costs. According to Flynn, she will be graduating with about $40,000 in debt, which isn’t uncommon among Loyola students. According to, Loyola students who take out loans accrue on average $30,128 in debt.

Loan debt is something that is constantly on Flynn’s mind. “It freaks me out so bad,” said Flynn. “It’s hard to focus on passing this test as opposed to the millions of next ones I will have to take…I want to go to dentistry school after graduation and it’s competitive and expensive.”

Flynn’s story is one of the many that go through Loyola’s financial aid department, which is headed by Nancy Merz. Along with the rest of her department, Merz tries to keep the financial aid process as personalized to each student as possible by being accessible and empathizing with students and parents.

“We are aware we are asking for a lot,” said Merz. “Loyola offers gift aid if a parent loses a job or something unexpected happens…This guarantees that [the student] will be able to stay.”

Merz told the story of a father who ran into trouble with insider trading and was afraid his daughter wouldn’t be able to attend Loyola due to his inability to pay her tuition. “We always want to ease these fears,” said Merz.

Despite the compassionate approach of the financial aid office at Loyola, members of the staff are limited in their ability to help students.

Monica Cohen is the adviser who oversees the TRIO Program at Loyola, a federal program that helps institutions provide funds to students who are from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“A family of four that has an annual income of $36,000 is too rich to be part of our program. Do I agree with this? No. There are families of four that [make] 50, 60, even 80 thousand [per year] that are still struggling.”

According to Cohen, such students have to make tough choices when it comes to their education, which can hurt their academic performance. Students often feel guilty about their parents taking out loans on their behalf and feel they have to choose between overworking themselves at a minimum-wage job or taking out another loan. Others decide on a lucrative career path for the sole purpose of paying off their loans.

Debt accrual is not the only problem students face. The process of taking out loans can also be stressful for students.

“Students are given an aid package and don’t realize how many loans there are…It’s easy to say ‘Oh you just fill out this papers and you’ll get a loan’ without reading the fine print. They’re making decisions they’re not even aware of,” said Cohen.

To tackle this issue, the financial aid office at Loyola has implemented a number of inventive financial literacy programs to better inform students.

However, confusion surrounding the student loan process is still widespread and can be especially detrimental to Loyola students who were previously experiencing psychological issues.

Terri Thomas, the director of student academic services at Loyola, said, “More and more students are coming [to school] with mental health concerns [like] depression and anxiety…When you don’t understand the process and options it adds even more stress.”

More than 20 percent of college students have been diagnosed or treated by a professional for a mental health condition within the past year, according to the report from the American College Health Association.

Loyola’s Wellness Center and Behavioral Assessment Teams are a few of the campus’ mental health resources that are offered to students who seek professional help.

Emily Arenson is a clinical social worker that works at Loyola’s Wellness Center. She says that mental health facilities are on the rise on college campuses due to increasing areas of anxiety such as financial debt.

“From an earlier age students [are subject to] financial stressors. In order to support their family financially they may feel pressure to get a degree by going to college and possibly graduate school,” said Arenson.

Despite the adverse mental effects that can affect students who incur student debt, many are still willing to take out loans for the sake of going to a private institution with good programs and an attractive alumni network.

Flynn, the Loyola freshman who worries about the $40,000 she’ll owe when she graduates, is willing to accept student debt and the pressures that come with it for the Loyola name. “The reputation was good. The student loans were kind of inevitable,” said Flynn.

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