PORTLAND – When Anna Korsen graduates from college next year, she’ll be more than $50,000 in debt.

Korsen, a sociology major at the University of Southern Maine, wants to be a social worker. Her starting pay likely would be between $25,000 and $30,000. Her college loan payments will be $500 to $600 a month.

It isn’t going to be easy, she said.

Standing in front of an oversized ball and chain, Korsen and other USM students quoted Wednesday from a Maine Public Interest Research Group report on the effect of rising college costs and exploding student loan debt. The combination will keep many graduates from public-service careers such as teaching and social work.

The report, “Paying Back, Not Giving Back: Student Debt’s Negative Impact on Public Service Career Opportunities,” cites shrinking federal aid and rising interest rates as the cause of higher student loan debt.

USM students said they’ll owe tens of thousands of dollars when they graduate. They called for:

• Government budgets that increase – rather than cut – support for higher education;

• More need-based college grants to students;

• A reduction in federal loan interest, which climbs to 6.8 percent on July 1.

• Colleges and universities to contain costs and make college affordable to all.

USM Student President Joshua Chaisson of Greene said students are witnessing a “terrifying” trend. “Every year we are vulnerable to an average 8- to 10-percent tuition hike, while federal financial aid programs are being slashed. We have President Bush’s 2007 fiscal budget to fear. This budget proposes to cut 48 education programs totaling $4.3 billion.”

At USM more than half of the students graduate with debt that exceeds $21,000, Chaisson said. In 2002, 39 percent of all student borrowers nationally graduated with unmanageable debt, according to the PIRG report.

Chaisson, a first-generation college student and a 2003 graduate of Leavitt Area High School in Turner, said he’s working three jobs, including delivering newspapers each morning. His family lives paycheck-to-paycheck, he said. “They cannot afford to send me to college.”

Because of his three jobs, he’ll graduate with $13,000 in debt, lower than many. Still, Chaisson worries how he’ll repay that. He wants to work in the public sector, in politics, but he’s considering the private market. The starting salary for public service would be about $20,000 a year. That wouldn’t be enough, he said, to cover student loans, food, housing and a car payment.

Student loans are too expensive and too easy to get, Korsen said. “The implications aren’t obvious at first. There needs to be more help for students in planning how they’re going to pay for college.”

She borrowed $30,000 her freshman year at Simmons College in Boston. She was 18 and had a casual attitude about loans, she said. “It was, ‘Whatever. I’ll deal with that later.'”

The next year she went to a college in Vermont and borrowed $20,000, then transferred to USM her junior year.

She advises students to start at a state university where they can get in-state tuition, at least for one year to get core credits out of the way.

“If I had done that, I wouldn’t have so much debt today,” Korsen said.