College debt is higher than ever. One in 2 grads with loans have regrets. - The Boston Globe (2024)

Cynthia Jalbert, a 57-year-old housekeeper in Lewiston, Maine, took out a $2,500 Parent PLUS loan to help her older son get a bachelor’s degree. After a year at Boston Architectural College, he’d transferred to the University of Southern Maine, a public institution that’s a relative bargain as New England colleges go. One year of in-state tuition at USM costs $8,910; with room, board, and fees, the price tag is just over $23,000. Compare that with Wellesley College and Boston, Tufts, and Yale universities, where starting this fall, total costs at each of the private schools will exceed the $90,000-a-year mark. At BU, The Boston Globe recently reported, the annual bill has surged more than 40 percent in a decade.

Jalbert was one of 6,000 New Englanders surveyed in February by Emerson College Polling, in partnership with the Globe Magazine, about perceptions of the value of college and the impact of its costs. Borrowing for higher education was not easy, Jalbert says, but she believes in the importance of a degree and has insisted her sons go to college. “My sons aren’t inclined to do plumbing or any of that,” she says,”so they kind of had to go to college to be able to learn something and find a career.”

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Jalbert makes $30,000 a year, so the $2,500 loan was substantial. The pain of it was amplified when she realized that it could cost her nearly $6,000 if she stuck to the payment schedule that stretches nearly 10 years from start to finish (she hopes to pay it off sooner). “I don’t mind taking out loans,” she says, “but if I take out a loan for under three grand, it shouldn’t double by the time I’m done paying it.”

More than 50 percent of bachelor’s degree students in the United States graduated with debt in 2021-2022, with those borrowers owing an average of $29,400, according to the nonprofit College Board. There is wide variation within that national average, however — women carry about two-thirds of student debt, for example, and Black women hold the most, an average of $37,558, according to a report from the American Association of University Women. The racial and gender wage gaps in the workplace often slow the speed of loan repayment, meaning more interest being owed.


Meanwhile, the cost of college just keeps climbing. In 1963-1964, a year of tuition, fees, room, and board at a public university averaged $912 (or about $9,000 in today’s dollars), according to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2022-2023, the average had grown to $20,401 a year.

With money like that at stake, it’s no wonder that in our survey, 77 percent of New England adults who have student loans are very or somewhat concerned about their ability to afford their payments. A striking 52 percent of respondents say their loans are not worth the cost and they regret taking them on. But the intensity of regret varies across different groups. For example, it’s strongest among those under age 50, men, Black people, Hispanic/Latino people, Republicans, and Independents. There are lower levels of regret among Democrats and people over the age of 50.

Since 2021, the Biden administration has green-lighted close to $138 billion in student debt cancellation for nearly 3.9 million borrowers. Our survey results show that 53 percent of New England adults support using government funds to reduce or eliminate student debt, while 30 percent oppose it and 17 percent are unsure.


Survey respondent Eric Sorensen, a woodworker and former business owner who lives in Rhode Island, says he’s against using federal funds to help borrowers. Now 70, he attended college for a year and a half without using loans. Sorensen believes, instead, that colleges need to be pressured to lower their prices. “I think the problem is that every dollar that gets thrown at [colleges], they manage to absorb and expand building, so it is not furthering education.”

Respondent Liza Jabar-Cagney, a 64-year-old registered nurse in Maine, agrees college has grown too expensive. She took out loans for her undergraduate degree (which required some two decades to pay) and an additional roughly $22,000 to get her nursing degree at age 50 (which she’s still paying off). “It is really outrageous,” she says of the amount of debt many students need to take on now to pursue degrees, “and it limits people in what they can do.”

That’s why Jabar-Cagney believes student-debt cancellation is a powerful national investment. “I see it as infrastructure to our populace, such as good bridges and roads,” she says. “I don’t see a downside to doing that or implementing free college. It exposes people to possibilities and choices.”

Survey methodology: The Boston Globe Magazine-Emerson College Polling survey of New England adults was conducted February 2-7, 2024. The study interviewed 6,000 adults (n=1,000 residents per New England state), with a credibility interval, similar to a poll's margin of error, per state of +/-3%. The overall New England sample was weighted proportionately for n=2,167 with a credibility interval of +/-2%. Data was collected by contacting cellphones via MMS-to-web, landlines via Interactive Voice Response, email, and an online panel.

Julia DaSilva-Novotny is pursuing her master’s degree in publishing and writing at Emerson College. Send comments to This project was produced in collaboration with an Emerson College writing course led by associate professor Susanne Althoff, a former editor of the Globe Magazine.


Read more from College & Careers:

  • We asked 6,000 New Englanders: Is a college degree still worth the cost?
  • Is a college degree needed for a great job? The answer is surprising.
  • How conservatives lost their trust in the value of college
  • The FAFSA aid debacle is like trying to get Taylor Swift tickets. My kid can’t go to college until it’s fixed.
College debt is higher than ever. One in 2 grads with loans have regrets. - The Boston Globe (2024)


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