By Isabel Walston

A whopping 57% of Georgia’s college graduates left school with student loan debt, according to the latest data from The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS).

Ashely Wall, a 26-year-old travel nurse based in Los Angeles, graduated in 2015 with a nursing degree from the Medical College of Georgia with $17,000 in debt, a number she called really low.

“I always kind of knew this is just a thing that has to be done,” Wall said. “This is part of my identity.”

While $17,000 is certainly not chump change, it is indeed lower than $27,754, which was the average debt for the class of 2015 in Georgia. By 2018 that number had grown 3.8% to $28,824, according to TICAS.

In the five years since she graduated, Wall has been paying back her loans in monthly installments of $186, in accordance with the 10-year plan she made when she took out the loans. However, she still has $11,000 left to pay off.

After some mulling, Wall decided she’s now in a financial position to pay back the loans all at once rather than over time. Her current rent is Los Angeles is a good deal and she’s been able to save money from her work as a travel nurse.

The decision to pay off all her remaining debt at once wasn’t an easy one to make, Wall said, and it has its drawbacks.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve wanted to take my money and invest it and start saving for retirement etcetera,” Wall said. “And I’m like, ‘Do I pay my loans off first, or do all this other stuff first that seems to make more sense, but live with this debt?’”

To help ease the financial stress loans place on graduates, some employers offer some sort of loan forgiveness. Funding is available to employees at many organizations, such as the education nonprofit Teach for America.

TFA offers an education award through its partnership with AmeriCorps, according to TFA email marketing director Margot Pagan.

The amount fluctuates, as it relies on federal grant funding, but it’s usually between $5,300 and $6,100 according to the TFA website. The award can be used for student loan payments or on current or future educational expenses at most colleges and universities.

Prior to becoming a member of the marketing team at TFA, Pagan worked as a teacher in the TFA corps. She said the education award was an important incentive for her participation in the corps.

“It was a considerable factor––one of many––that helped me to feel confident about joining TFA,” Pagan said. “I don’t think anyone joins TFA exclusively because of this benefit, but if you are passionate about the mission and ready to be a corps member then it’s helpful from a financial perspective to know that you are eligible for the AmeriCorps benefits.”

Despite programs like TFA’s that are designed to help alleviate debt, there remains a student loan debt crisis in America. In 2020, the national student loan debt is estimated to be $1.56 trillion, according to an article published by Forbes in February.

Wall said she hopes to see a future in which student loan debt is not normalized.

“People shouldn’t be punished for pursuing something,” Wall said. “I think people should stop looking at it as so normal and start challenging the thought of it.”

Isabel Walston is a journalism student at the University of Georgia. The reporting for this article was completed prior to the campus closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.