Who are they?

One is putting off buying a house as she digs out of $80,000 in student loans. Another can't afford to be a social worker, so she took a government job. Another took advantage of the GI Bill to pay for school.

That's how some people with social work degrees are handling the burden of student loan debt. Student debt is a growing problem across the country: U.S. students are graduating with an average of $30,000 in loans. The field of social work is one of the least glamorous, with an average starting salary of $26,000. It's also one of the biggest shortage areas in the country. People who have entered the field, usually out of a passion for helping others, are graduating with up to $120,000 in debt. They shared their stories with us through interviews that began on a Reddit forum, which we reached through the It Gets Smaller student loan tool.

Some social workers in the forum knew what they were in for after finishing their studies. Others find themselves standing at the brink of graduation, wondering how they will ever pay for their debt.

Final Words

  • I can't imagine paying it off, and I'm scared of when repayment begins.

    Melissa Merlino, 31, of New York, is about to enter a master's program, which she'll finish with $75,000 in debt.

Little solutions

Some advice from professionals further down the path offered a bleak forecast

Comment from discussion student loan debt.

The most popular solution, provided by people in the field, is to rely on the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (PSLF), which forgives social workers' remaining loans after they make payments for 10 years.

The trick is to stay within the rules. The program requires people to work for a government agency or a tax-exempt not-for-profit. The program has led many social workers to avoid private practice. Another key requirement: In order to keep qualifying for loan forgiveness, you have to work at least an annual average of 30 hours per week.

That requirement "removes the possibility of being a stay-at-home parent" for 10 years, noted one social worker who graduated two years ago with $85,000 in debt. He said he's not considering having kids at the moment, but the loan forgiveness program may sway his plans in the future.

Others have put off buying homes until they dig out of debt, and advised aspiring social workers to "relax on the credit cards." Here are four stories, and lessons learned, from recent graduates in the field.

A guide to the acronyms:
BSW = Bachelor's in social work
MSW = Master's in social work
MPH = Master's in public health

Name: Kelly Ryder

Age: 24

Home: Atlanta, GA

Debt upon graduation: $57,000, including $17,000 from college and the rest from her dual master’s degree program in social work (MSW) and public health (MPH).

How she's handling the debt: “I ended up taking a job on the MPH route (at the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]) because of the higher pay, and I’m also doing freelance web development for an additional 10-20 hours a week so I can get my loans paid back at a faster rate. I’m aiming to be debt free by 2020. It’s doable, but I’m pretty sure I’ll never have a job in social work just because I need something that pays more.”
Kelly is working on an informatics project during a fellowship at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which pays about $15,000 more than what her friends from her MSW program at the University of Georgia are making in social work jobs. That doesn’t include the $30,000-$40,000 she makes from her second job.
“If I didn’t have student loan debt, I would’ve been more likely to find a job that combines both my MSW and MPH degrees, and I would’ve been perfectly happy taking a job with lower pay. I think it’s something I will consider doing once my debt is paid off.”

Why she chose to study social work: “I chose to study social work with the intention of getting both social work and public health degrees, as I was interested in both childhood obesity and family systems. Most of my research focused on behavior change within the family system for families who have overweight obese children.” I did know my future job would not pay much, but it wasn’t too much of a concern until I realized just how much debt I would be in upon graduating from grad school. I was expecting to get a graduate assistantship my first year, which didn’t happen.”

What she wished she knew before choosing this field: “I did know my future job would not pay much, but it wasn’t too much of a concern until I realized just how much debt I would be in upon graduating from grad school. I was expecting to get a graduate assistantship my first year, which didn’t happen.”

Name: Candy Camargo

Age: 38

Home: San Antonio, TX

Debt upon graduation: About $75,000 when she finishes MSW program

How she's handling the debt: “My plan is to either apply most of my earnings towards paying it off (live on my husband's income, which we are doing currently) or do the Public Service Loan Forgiveness option. The debt will most likely influence what type of work I do if I choose the PSLF route.”
“Where I live in Texas the cost of living is low enough that my family can live on one income. … If I choose to pay off my loans (which may be more difficult since I have a child that will be in daycare, which is expensive) I will still seek a job that aligns with my social work values, which will most likely be in the public sector helping those in marginalized communities.”

Why she chose to study social work: “I feel life experiences prepared me for this type of work. I want to help those who are disadvantaged to find their place in this world.”

What she wished she knew before choosing this field: “I am still in school and still learning, so I just try to keep an open mind to whatever comes my way.”

Name: Elena Saldamando

Age: 32

Home: Orlando, FL

Debt upon graduation: About $70,000 left after graduating with a bachelor’s in social work in 2005 and a MSW in 2008.

How she's handling the debt: She entered the 10-year Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program this year, after taking a job as a radiation oncology social worker at an Orlando hospital. “I chose this job by happen chance. I was just looking for a job, any job, and got hired at the hospital as a discharge case manager and was placed on the inpatient oncology floor. Never had any oncology experience, personal or professional. I fell in love with the population and the needs and am extremely lucky that the hospital qualifies under the 10-year program because I can easily see myself doing this work for the rest of my life.”

Why she chose to study social work: “I knew I wanted to do something in counseling and helping people. I wanted a job with a purpose and that was ever-changing. I get extremely bored easily and constantly need to be challenged. I started off in the psych dept. in undergrad and then found the College of Social Work and realized that was what I wanted to do (never heard of social workers before that). It’s been a rollercoaster profession financially and personally, but I have found my niche after working in different jobs and populations.”

What she wished she knew before choosing this field: “That it would take me a really long time to feel accomplished professionally and financially, so relax on the credit cards and student loans and wanting to ‘keep up with the Joneses’.”

Name: Melissa Merlino

Age: 31

Home: Wappingers Falls, NY

Debt upon graduation: $43,000 when she graduates this spring with a Bachelor's in Social Work. She's about to take on another $32,000 to get her master's.

How she's handling the debt: “I've chosen to stay with my current employer for longer than I originally anticipated due to their tuition assistance program. I can't imagine paying it off, and I'm scared of when repayment begins.” … “I'm going to be in a lot of debt, but part of that is my own fault for going to private schools. They seem to be the most accommodating in regards to the fact that I have a full time job within the field at a mental health day treatment program which I did not want to sacrifice in order to go to school. I know how hard it can be to find a job for recent graduates and I have a secure job with room for advancement so the tradeoff is that I ended up going to private schools. Since I work for a nonprofit agency, I can apply for student loan forgiveness if I can manage to pay my loans on time for ten years.”

Why she chose to study social work: “It just kind of happened. I got a job doing direct care at a residential treatment center because I hated my retail job and wanted to try something different. I had dropped out of college in 2004, so I didn't have much as far as other career options so I decided to try it. I liked the work, most of the time but I didn't like breaking up fights and the mandated overtime which were part of the job. I wanted to do more meaningful work with clients instead of direct care, which led me to exploring options in order to pursue more clinical work.”

What she wished she knew before choosing this field: “I talked to a lot of people (mental health counselors, psychologists, social workers) before making the commitment to going back to school for social work so I felt pretty well informed. I know the pay isn't the best, but overall I like the work.”