College was always in the cards for 24-year-old Tony Reeves.

After graduating from Lawrence North High School in 2018, he followed in his older sister’s footsteps to the University of Indianapolis to study communications with a concentration in journalism. He made friends, got involved with the student newspaper and became a resident assistant. 

But COVID-19 changed all of that. Like many students around the country, Reeves struggled to feel interested in virtual learning and started skipping remote classes. His college education went from engaging in-person conversations to a series of discussion board posts.

University of Indianapolis' sign pictured on Jan. 11, 2024.
The University of Indianapolis’ sign on Jan. 11, 2024. Credit: Claire Rafford

“I didn’t feel like I was learning anything,” he said. “I’m paying money for something that I’m not enjoying, nor am I actually getting an education. I’m wasting my money.”

That passivity led Reeves to drop out in 2021, originally intending to take a gap semester. But two years later, he still hasn’t gone back. Yet another catch? He’s on the hook for $50,000 in federal and private student loans.

Student loan borrowers who don’t complete their degrees, like Reeves, are trapped in a rare quagmire, caught between the pressure to incur more debt by going back to school and the frustrating limbo of paying for a degree they never completed. Though Indiana’s college completion rates have steadily risen over the last several years, around a third of Hoosier students don’t complete college in six years and more than half graduate with debt, leaving students who fit both categories in a bind.

“Through potentially no fault of their own, they’re in a worse situation than if they had just not gone to school at all,” said Phil Schuman, director of financial literacy at Indiana University Bloomington.

Some debt, no degree

As of July 2021, the number of Indiana students with some college education but no degree had reached nearly 770,000, up 3.2% from the previous reporting period studied by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. That growth was slightly slower than the national increase of 3.6%.

It’s unclear how many of those students remain saddled with student loans. Indiana’s annual report on college costs and financial aid does not contain information about the debt owed by students who don’t graduate.

But of the students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree, a majority — 57% — took on debt. The average debt of those students is just under $30,000, according to the state’s report.

While students who complete some college will still gain the knowledge, without a college diploma they’ll lose a critical prerequisite for many careers and employers. 

Nate Storm, 29, at Calvin Fletcher's Coffee Company on Jan. 4, 2024.
Nathan Storm Credit: Claire Rafford / Mirror Indy

Nate Storm, 29, credits his high school art teacher with his decision to attend Herron School of Art and Design at IUPUI. He wanted to be a graphic designer, and for the most part, he loved learning how to balance his creative pursuits with learning a productive workflow.

To graduate with a degree in visual communications design, Storm needed between 12 and 15 elective credits. Rather than pay for more college, he decided that he’d learned all he could and dropped out in spring 2018.

“My thinking was, I don’t want to spend thousands of dollars on information that I didn’t feel would be useful to what I wanted to do,” Storm said. 

Paying back his loans didn’t cross his mind until a year after he left school, when he received his first bill from his loan servicer. Storm, who had only a vague idea that he’d eventually have to pay back loans, was astounded. He called his dad, who informed him he had $80,000 in federal and private student loans to pay back. 

“I was really frustrated,” Storm said. “There’s so much assumption that everything’s going to be fine, which is really ignorant when it comes to money.”

Schuman said it’s not uncommon for students to be in the dark about how much they owe. Parents often take out loans on the student’s behalf, or students just sign off because they need to fund their education and don’t have other options besides loans. 

Student loans are also unique among other types of debt. With car payments or mortgages, the borrower can use the item as soon as that down payment check clears. 

But student loans are more like an investment made in a student’s future potential. And while there’s an assumption that the student will graduate, there’s no guarantee that something — a global pandemic, for example, or a family emergency — won’t get in the way of that goal, Schuman said. 

“You take that money out, and you still have to put in the effort and the work and all of that before you actually get that thing,” Schuman said, “And that thing that you get is just a piece of paper.”

Addressing the gap

A diploma may be just a piece of paper, but it represents the opportunity for economic and social mobility. 

The median income of students who complete some college is more than $20,000 less than that of students who obtain a bachelor’s degree, according to 2021 data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Comparatively, students who achieve only a high school diploma earn just $1,300 less than students who have completed some college. 

But research shows that many students drop out of college at least in part because of financial considerations. That leaves students like Storm and Reeves navigating a world where college degrees are a prerequisite for many well-paying jobs.

Indiana does offer some support on a statewide level for students who have some college but no degree. The Indiana Commission for Higher Education offers a renewable $2,000 grant for adult students returning to school to complete a certificate or associate’s or bachelor’s degrees.

Still, research from the National Student Clearinghouse shows that the number of students with some college who are re-enrolling is on the decline. Once the student’s momentum slows, it’s hard to get back into it — especially if going back to school involves taking on further debt. 

“How much do you trust that you can go back, borrow and feel like you are going to be able to finish?” Schuman said. “That requires a lot of faith and a lot of confidence that that sort of thing would happen.”

Finding their footing

Reeves works as a veterinary technician, a job he loves with solid pay. Still, he said he often debates going back to college, not just for the knowledge, but because he’d be eligible to defer his student loans — a “budgeting plan” of sorts. 

Because of SAVE, President Joe Biden’s income-based repayment plan, Reeves doesn’t have a monthly payment for his federal loans right now. But he’s still spending $450 a month on his private student loans, which affects his financial planning and considerations for the future. If he could do it over again, Reeves said he would’ve attended community college for his general education credits and transferred to a four-year institution. 

He recommends this path — starting with community college and transferring — to younger students he knows, giving the guidance he wishes he’d had. 

“It would have saved me a tremendous amount of money,” he said. 

Going back to college requires a great deal of time and financial resources — and it’s not for everyone.

Following his time at Herron, Storm worked in a restaurant and tried to make ends meet. Though he’d spent years studying graphic design and felt qualified for entry-level positions, his insecurity over a lack of a degree held him back from applying for jobs. 

Still, he never considered going back to college to finish those last few credits. Storm is now a professional artist and works at a coffee shop to supplement his income. He continues to make minimum monthly payments while trying to otherwise enjoy his life.

“Because I didn’t have that degree, it forced me to instead just pursue what made me happier, which is now my art practice,” he said. “So I am thankful for how things ended up shaking out.”

Claire Rafford covers higher ed for Mirror Indy in partnership with Open Campus. 

Got a story about student loans from an Indiana college or university to share? Reach out to reporter Claire Rafford at claire.rafford@mirrorindy.org

Claire Rafford covers higher ed for Mirror Indy in partnership with Open Campus.