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College debt is one of the largest financial burdens young people face today

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

College debt is one of the most crippling financial burdens young people face today. What's more, nearly 40% of student loan borrowers don't finish their degree within six years. That's according to the Hope Center for College Community and Justice. So they end up with thousands of dollars in student debt and no degree to show for it. One of those borrowers is our guest, Isabelle Praget, who's now an operations manager at the University of Washington, and she joins us now from Seattle. Welcome.

ISABELLE PRAGET: Hi. Thank you, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Isabelle, you attended the University of Texas at Austin more than 10 years ago. What led you to leave the school?

PRAGET: Yeah, it was a combination of things. One was not really feeling like the major was something that would help me in the future. And then there was also the fact that I was starting to accumulate that debt, and so I needed to switch from part-time to full-time jobs and - you know, to try to make ends meet. So I just decided to stop, thinking, oh, I'll come back to it. And, of course, life happened, and I never did.

RASCOE: So how long were you at UT Austin, and what was your major?

PRAGET: I was there for three years, a break, and then I would try to go back for another year at part time. My major was international studies with a minor in Spanish, so I was hoping to do something, you know, a little more global. That's one of the years I took off, was when I was teaching in Spain. But my path just went down operations. So it didn't really felt necessary anymore, and I just kind of kept going with my real-life training versus my college education.

RASCOE: How close were you to graduating?

PRAGET: Painfully close. I think if I were to pull up my transcript, I was somewhere in, like, the 30-ish credits. And that's because when I came back, I went part-time. So that's why I missed some credits. Otherwise, yeah, I would have graduated that final year.

RASCOE: Tell me about that, that real-life work that you've been doing. So you've been working in operations. Have you been making good enough money to pay off the debt that you got when you were at college?

PRAGET: So I definitely did not start of making good enough money. I did, like, the minimum payments at first, and then I, you know, did all the deferrals and all that fun process of bureaucracy and paperwork that you need to go through to kind of get people off your back. But I have been in some positions where I've been offered less than I could have if I'd had my degree. In my current position that's how it started. I was offered a position about $20-, $30,000 less than I could have been making if I had that on my resume.

RASCOE: And so fast forward to today. What's the total amount of your loans?

PRAGET: Total amount right now is somewhere in the 60,000.

RASCOE: OK. And that includes interest?

PRAGET: Correct.

RASCOE: So including interest is 60,000. That's a lot of money.

PRAGET: Yeah.

RASCOE: How are you juggling, like, having $60,000 in debt, which is a lot, and caring for yourself and your family?

PRAGET: Yeah, it's been a struggle. And it's also not just my own debt. My partner also has their college debt. They did finish with their degree, but they're also not doing anything remotely related to their degree. They were also an international studies student, and now they're an account experience manager. And now we have two kids. So it's been - I won't say paycheck to paycheck. We have been very lucky in that sense. However, it's still a struggle. You know, we still rent, and we're in our mid-30s. We - like I said, we have two kids now. And we just haven't really been able to set down those roots because we always have this looming on us where everything extra goes to that.

RASCOE: You have two kids. Are you hoping they'll go to college but not have to take out loans? I don't know how that will work. Are you hoping they'll just be really smart or, like, play ball really well?

PRAGET: (Laughter) Right.

RASCOE: That's kind of what I hope it will happen.

PRAGET: Yeah. I secretly do hope that, but I'm definitely - I mean, the oldest one is 4, and the little one is 6 months. So I really don't have to worry about it yet.

RASCOE: You have time. You have time.

PRAGET: But I am already kind of, like, crafting that in my head of how am I going to tell them you can literally do whatever you want? Like, I don't want to push these traumas that I have of not finishing or, like, what my parents always said, like, you have to go to school. Like, no. Take your gap. Go to technical school. Don't go to college. Like, whatever is best for you and the way that you learn and what you want to do is OK by me.

RASCOE: Isabelle Praget, thank you so much for joining us.

PRAGET: Thank you, Ayesha.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.