As millions graduate from colleges and universities this spring, student loan debt will put the kibosh on the hopes many of them have to become entrepreneurs. And millions of others who have been out of school for years are in the same unhappy place.
Ashley Rodriguez and her husband, Alex, a manager with a wine and spirits company, would like to start a restaurant. But Rodriguez graduated from the University of Miami in 2008 with $72,000 in loans. She still owes about $53,000, with payments of more than $400 a month.
“We would need to have a certain net worth, a certain amount of disposable income that we just don’t have at this point,” says the account executive with the public relations firm Fish Consulting in Washington, D.C. She expects it will take another 11 years to pay off her debt, putting off her husband’s dream.
Concerns about the impact on the economy from the nation’s collective $1.3 trillion in student loan debt have prompted the federal government, states and some schools to offer debt forgiveness or relief programs. Student loans that can run into the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars prevent many people from buying homes or raising families, in addition to stopping them from becoming entrepreneurs. A 2015 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found that higher student debt curtailed the formation of new businesses with one to four employees. And in a 2014 survey by Gallup and Purdue University, 25 percent of recent graduates with student loans over $25,001 said debt forced them to delay starting a company.
“These loans are not going to be paid off anytime soon. There’s a chance it’s going to have a long-term effect,” says Arnobio Morelix, a researcher with the Kauffman Foundation, which studies education and entrepreneurship.
Would-be entrepreneurs are seeing loan payments eat up cash that might be used for startup costs, or that would serve as cash flow for a new company, Morelix says. Debt also affects credit scores, hurting an entrepreneur’s chances of getting a business loan.
In 2014, about 70 percent of graduates of public and private colleges had student loans, with an average debt of nearly $30,000, according to the Institute for College Access & Success, an advocacy group that conducts research on college attendance and financing.
Debt loads are likely to keep rising with tuition. Students who attended a four-year private nonprofit school from 2006-10 paid nearly $150,000 for tuition, fees, room and board, according to the College Board. A 2016 graduate paid nearly $170,000. Graduate school costs can be high, especially for MBAs and degrees like law and medicine.
Joe Ross graduated from Stanford Law School in 2007 with debt of more than $160,000. Add in his wife’s school loans and the couple, who have three children, had a loan balance over $200,000 and payments of several thousand dollars a month. Ross, who had long wanted to be an entrepreneur, quit his job in 2013 and began creating ParentLeaf, a social networking app to connect families whose children attend the same schools. He used savings for living expenses and to begin funding startup costs for the data-intensive app that he estimated exceeded $700,000.
Ross got his lenders to agree to put his student loan payments on hold or lower the interest rates, and had a verbal promise of an investment from a venture capital firm. But the money didn’t come through by the time Ross had to resume loan payments.
“I ended up giving up that dream and taking a job with another company,” Ross says. He’s now president at Schoold, a San Francisco-based app that helps students navigate the college search process.
Debt can also keep some entrepreneurs who have taken the plunge from getting too far in building their businesses. Philip Herman and two partners started a software company, SwiftLeadz, which aims to help companies respond quickly to sales inquiries. But he’s paying more than $1,200 a month toward student loans that totaled $120,000 when he graduated from the University of Toledo in 2013. Interest charges are paid off first, so he’s reduced his principal by only $2,000.
Herman works full time as a marketing manager in Dayton, Ohio, for Strategic Franchising Systems, a franchise operator, and consults on the side to make more money to pay down his loans.
“I’m putting a lot more effort into work when I could be spending time with my family just so I could make an extra dime,” he says.
Matthew Morris and Blake Williams have set up a pilot website for their travel company, Bowtie Guy, but say they need $10,000 to really launch the business. Morris is held back by his $560 monthly payments on more than $50,000 in loans he has after graduating from Furman University in 2014 and the University of Edinburgh in 2015.
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