Colleges and universities across the state will award degrees to thousands of graduates during commencement exercises this weekend.
Students will take with them the wisdom of commencement speakers such as Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman who will address University of South Carolina graduates on Saturday, or U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who will speak to Benedict College graduates the same day.
Students will take with them a raft of memories - staying up late studying, road trips, football games.
But they'll take something else with them, too: Debt. Heavy, brand-new-car-level debt.
South Carolina ranks second among 11 Southern states in the average amount of debt its student-borrowers left school with in 2008, according to the Project on Student Debt, a research initiative of the Institute for College Access and Success. Students in only 20 states left school with more debt than the $21,157 that S.C. students owed on average on graduation in 2008.
"Having college-educated young adults saddled with $10,000, $20,000 and even $30,000 in college debt is a liability not just for their financial future but for the country's," said Edie Irons, communications director for the institute, which is based in California.
Student debt rose sharply from 2004 to 2008, according to figures from the Project on Student Debt. At public universities across the country, students graduated in 2008 with an average of $20,200 in debt, a 20 percent increase from 2004.
Students left private, nonprofit four-year schools with considerably more debt in 2008 - $27,650, a 29 percent increase from 2004. Students who graduated from private, for-profit schools in 2008 left with an even higher debt burden, $33,050, a 23 percent increase from 2004.
Higher tuition, reduced public funding of colleges and universities, and federal assistance that has not kept pace with increasing college costs are the reasons for the bigger debt loads, Irons said.
According to figures from the Project on Student Debt, students from S.C. State University and Coastal Carolina University left college with the highest average debt in South Carolina, $26,678 and $24,856, respectively. USC Columbia students left with $21,315 in debt, on average. Clemson University graduates left owing $17,746, and College of Charleston graduates left with debts averaging $17,139.
Among the state's private schools, students from Furman University, at $24,325, and Coker College, at $22,508, left school with the most debt in 2008.
Krystin McCormick, a 20-year-old psychology major from Bennettsville who will graduate from USC on Saturday, wishes her debt load was that low. Instead, she will leave USC with somewhere around $40,000 in debt, she said.
McCormick is one of the many students who fit into a type of assistance hole - more than academically accomplished enough to be admitted to a school like USC but without the grades or test scores to get a full scholarship. McCormick, the first in her family to attend college, said her family was not able to afford to pay for her education, but its income was not low enough to qualify for need-based assistance that could have made heavy borrowing unnecessary.
She said her debt load has altered her future plans.
"Initially, I was going into research," said McCormick, who minored in criminal justice. "I had my mind set on research up until my junior year. But then (graduation) got closer, and I thought more about the debt and how I could handle it."
Like many other students, McCormick looked for ways to earn a living without such a large debt load. She's now planning to sit out a year and work, saving money to return to graduate school with the goal of becoming a guidance counselor at a middle or high school. With states looking for educators to teach students in poor areas, education students have an increased opportunity for loan forgiveness.
"That's actually why I chose this route," McCormick said. "I wasn't even considering education at first, but now it's all I'm thinking about. I really hope I fall in love with education and can make a career of it."
USC officials said the school does what it can to lessen the load on students by offering counseling, offering a financial literacy program and altering the school's University 101 course to include a section on financial management.
But Dennis Pruitt, vice president for student affairs, said students also can do a lot to keep their debt down by pushing hard to graduate in four years because financial aid tends to wither as a student goes past the four-year mark.
That reality puts some students in a bind. Dropping a class in which a student is off to a bad academic start can protect a grade-point average, an important consideration for those who want to get into competitive graduate schools or need to hold on to lottery-funded scholarships tied to grades. But dropping a class also can extend a student's college stay past four years, setting them up to borrow more money.
Because loan amounts often are pegged to an estimated cost of attendance, Pruitt said students often borrow more than they need, giving them a false sense of affluence that is harshly shattered when their education is complete.
Big debt loads for students are an issue, Pruitt said.
"Is higher education a societal benefit or is it an individual benefit?" he said. "If there's a societal benefit - and we know there is - then we've got to find a way to help these families."
McCormick said her college experience was priceless. She said her four young nephews would visit her at USC and leave excited about someday going to college.
"Even with all the student debt, I wouldn't trade my Carolina experience for anything," she said.
Local colleges and universities hold graduation programs:
Benedict College - Saturday, 9 a.m. at Charlie W. Johnson Stadium; speaker, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif.
Claflin University - Saturday, 11 a.m. at the Seventh-Day Adventist Worship and Convention Center; speaker, Claflin president Henry Tisdale
Columbia College - Saturday, 11 a.m. at Township Auditorium; speaker, Federal Trade Commission member Mignon Clyburn
Columbia International University - Saturday, May 15 at Shortess Chapel; speaker, the Rev. Robert J. Morgan, pastor at Donelson Fellowship in Nashville
Morris College - Saturday, 10 a.m. at the Sumter County Exhibition Center; speaker, state Rep. David Weeks, D-Sumter
Newberry College - Saturday, 2:30 p.m. at Eleazer Arena; speaker, outgoing Newberry President Mitchell Zais
S.C. State University - Tonight, 7 p.m. at Oliver C. Dawson Stadium; speaker, Patricia Harris, global chief diversity officer for McDonald's Corp.
University of South Carolina at Columbia - Friday, 3 p.m. at Colonial Life Arena; speaker, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson
Corrected Saturday, 9:30 a.m. at Colonial Life Arena; speaker, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke
Corrected Saturday, 3 p.m. at Colonial Life Arena; speaker, Robinson