Average student debt difficult to pay off, delays life milestones

Canada's average student debt for graduates hovers around $25,000. Meet one 2008 graduate who, like many in repayment assistance or default, is struggling to pay back her loans many years after graduation.

Brittany Verge graduated in 2008 with Canada's average student debt load—and has paid off $2K

Brittany Verge, 26, graduated in 2008 with about $25,000 of student loans. More than five years later, she has paid back about $2,000 and defaulted on the federal portion of her debt. (Scott Blackburn)

Brittany Verge knew she would have to rely on student loans to pay for post-secondary education after high school. But as a teenager, she didn't realize how difficult paying off an average Canadian graduate debt load would be.

"My worry is that I'm going to be, you know, with college-age kids some day and still paying my loan," the 26-year-old explains.

After three years of post-secondary schooling in Nova Scotia, Verge graduated in 2008 with about $25,000 of debt — just about the national average. More than five years later, she has only managed to pay back about $2,000.

For people like Verge, high debt loads are not only a financial stress but can delay the time it takes individuals or couples to reach certain milestones, such as having children, getting married or owning property, according to recent research in North America.

My worry is that I'm going to be ... with college-age kids some day and still paying my loan.- Brittany Verge, 26-year-old graduate

Average Canadian student debt estimates hover in the mid- to high-$20,000 range. The Canadian Federation of Students pegs it at $27,000, which is close to the nearly $26,300 many students said they expected to owe after graduation in a recent BMO survey.

Simon Fraser University's annual survey of more than 15,000 graduating students found debt-saddled students reported an average of about $24,600 in 2012. When debt-free graduates were added to the equation, the average dropped to about $14,500.

Post-graduate work hard to find

Despite being handed a large enough loan to pay for one year of university and two years of college, Verge says she did not understand the consequences of owing so much money.

After graduation, Verge struggled to find permanent, full-time work, like many other young people.

In January 2014, the youth unemployment rate in the country was 13.9 per cent, according to Statistics Canada. In 2013, young people in the Atlantic provinces and Ontario had the highest unemployment rates, according to a report released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Verge lives in this 100-year-old house, which she and her husband received from his mother when she downsized to an apartment for health reasons. They helped her a little bit with rent until she passed away in Nov. 2011. (Brittany Verge)
​Verge originally intended to become a teacher, but changed her mind after one year at Memorial University. She spent the next two years at Nova Scotia Community College completing a photography program, hoping to become a photojournalist.

She floated between retail jobs and spent summers living with her parents while working at a museum. She worked on freelance photography projects in her spare time.

"I was doing an array of things, and quite often going on EI [employment insurance] when I couldn't find any more retail work," she recalls.

During those hodgepodge employment years, the most she and her husband — whom she married in 2009 in a no-frills, self-catered affair — made was $34,000 annually before taxes.

Five years after graduation, Verge landed her first full-time job in her chosen field, as a reporter for a local newspaper in Liverpool, N.S., where she lives. She now makes less than $28,000 before taxes.

Defaulted debts, repayment assistance

But years earlier, Verge defaulted on some of her loans.

Like many students, Verge's loans are split between federal and provincial. Her monthly payments for her federal loan, under the Canada Student Loans Program (CSLP), totalled about $200; while her provincial loan payments were much smaller.

"How could somebody who has seasonal employment and is taking out EI possibly pay them that much," she says, adding her husband was a student still paying tuition at the time.

When she didn't make payments for more than 270 days, her federal loan went into default.

Over the past few years, about 14 per cent of people with federal student loans have defaulted within three years of leaving school, according to the CIBC Centre for Human Capital and Productivity at Western University.

In 2010-11, 165,000 borrowers entered the CSLP's repayment assistance program. Graduates have to apply and qualify for repayment assistance, which lowers their monthly payment to no more than 20 per cent of their family income, every six months. Former students whose loans have defaulted are not eligible.

Since Verge defaulted on her loans, the Canada Revenue Agency collects $125 each month from her and takes her GST and income tax refunds — should she qualify for any. She pays an additional $40 monthly for her provincial loans.

Delayed life milestones

Verge's husband is currently pursuing a masters in history at Saint Mary's University in Halifax and hopes to continue into a PhD program. When he graduates, the young couple will have his student debt repayment to contend with as well. So far, it totals $30,000 (his current year's tuition has been covered by a scholarship).

Between 2012 and 2013, more than 400,000 students borrowed money to help pay for more schooling, claims the Canadian Federation of Students. With so many acquiring post-graduate debt, young couples, like Verge and her husband, often have to repay two sets of loans.

Brittany Verge and her husband married in 2009. Together, they have about $53,000 of student debt. But he is still in school pursuing a masters degree and hopes to go on to a PhD program. (Megan Element)

Verge considers herself lucky, because she and her husband moved into his mother's house in 2010 when she downsized to an apartment for health reasons. The couple helped pay her monthly rent until she passed away in 2011.

Verge says they wouldn't have been able to save for a down payment to buy property themselves.

Still, the house is more than 100 years old and needs significant work, including electrical and insulation. Renovations are going slowly because Verge and her husband don't have the disposable income to reinvest in the house.

Their housing and financial situation could delay their decision on when to have kids, Verge says — though she admits kids aren't necessarily on their radar right now.

"Where do you even put a baby when you don't even have insulation in your walls?"

If she could go back to her senior year of high school, Verge would make different choices, namely being more certain of what she wanted to study before spending $8,000 on a year's worth of university tuition, books and living costs.

"Any debt is a hindrance," says Verge, explaining it's harder to be a productive member of society while repaying tens of thousands of student loan dollars.

"I don't spend a lot of money. I don't even have a television or cable. I haven't taken a real vacation since my honeymoon. I don't have a savings account."