PORTLAND — Recent college graduate Chelsie O’Connell, 23, loves her administrative assistant job at Port City Music Hall.

“It’s amazing,” said O’Connell, a graduate of Mountain Valley High School in Rumford. The job is everything she wanted, she said. “I’m in the industry, learning everything I can.”

But achieving the dream of a college degree has meant a nightmare in student loan debt.

O’Connell graduated from Johnson State College in Vermont with a bachelor’s degree in hospitality and tourism management, and $40,000 in college loans, she said.

That means payments of $360 a month for 20 years. Her job pays about $20,000 a year.

“You have to start at the bottom,” she said. Making that loan payment on top of rent, food, car payments and everything else “is really hard.” O’Connell said she wouldn’t be able to live on her own without her parents, who help her pay some of her bills.

In high school, “you’re taught you have to go to college; you have to get a degree,” O’Connell said. “What they don’t tell you is a college degree does not guarantee you a $40,000 job. They’re not telling you you could be unemployed a year before you find something.”

High school students need to understand the loans they’re about to take out “are permanent, not something you brush off,” she said.

When it comes to college debt, O’Connell has loads of unfortunate company. Experts say it’s become a bigger problem in Maine and across the country. A recent report shows Maine’s 2009 college graduates are carrying an average of $29,000 in debt, the third-highest in the country. Adding to that is a tough economy and a weak job market.

“We’re seeing students take out more and more debt every year,” said Edie Irons, communications director for the Project on Student Debt in Washington, D.C.

“College costs keep rising, and states keep cutting financial aid, putting more of the burden onto students,” Irons said. “This is a serious issue with major implications.”

How much debt students carry after college determines what type of jobs individuals seek, discouraging some from staying in Maine, going into public service or social work or going to graduate school, experts said. Debt influences when or whether individuals buy homes, start families or open businesses.

“It is really important to go to college,” Irons said. But students need help achieving that degree without getting in over their heads. Often, first-generation college students need the most help navigating how to pay for college, because “they’re on their own at age 18,” Irons said.

More high schools are doing more to help students and families understand college finances, said Joan Macri, a former Lewiston High School aspirations director who has helped hundreds of students go to college. Today, Macri works with area high schools for the College for ME-Androscoggin at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College.

Paying for college once was an issue only for students and parents; schools kept out of it, Macri said. “That’s changing. About five years ago a light bulb went off across the state.”

With help from the Finance Authority of Maine, schools are doing more work to ensure seniors and parents fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, which helps students qualify for grants and low-interest loans. FAME and schools are also doing more outreach to help students and families understand how much debt is typically manageable, how much is not and what future incomes could be in certain occupations.

Borrowing for college is a reality for the majority of students, Irons and Macri agreed. But there’s a limit.

“If you graduate owing $20,000, that is not bad. That’s a car payment,” Macri said. “But when you owe $40,000 or $50,000, that’s too much.”

If a student must borrow that much, he or she should look at a different college or university, or maybe start out at a community college while living at home, Macri advised.

Matthew Conklin, 23, of Turner also is saddled with school debt. He graduated from Leavitt Area High School in 2006 and got accepted to Lyndon State College in Vermont. He got financial aid for two years, but not the third. “I had to quit,” Conklin said. “This was right before the economy tanked.”

Conklin said he was left with two years of college, no degree and college loans. He’s out of work, other than a part-time job. “I’ve had to defer my loan payments three times, going on four.”

An Auburn mother in her 40s, who works as a therapist, said she has a career she loves but college debt she can’t pay. Her debt grew from $25,000 for her bachelor’s degree to $70,000 after getting her master’s to more than $130,000 after postponing payments year after year.

She deferred payments after her family went through bankruptcy. They had relocated to Maine when her husband was deployed to Iraq. With more pressing bills, such as feeding her family, “I was not paying attention to the unbelievable amount of interest being accrued.”

Collectors are demanding $900 or more a month — money she can’t pay. It’s important to get an education, she said, but college costs and debt “are out of control.”

O’Connell said she had a rich experience in college. If she had to do it over, she might do what some of her friends are doing: getting the first two years of college at a community college, then transferring to a four-year school.

“I might have gone to school in-state,” she said.

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