The Rising Costs of Student Loans

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It wasn’t until he graduated college in May 2008 that my friend Ben realized the depth of his student loans: $40,000 owed upon completion of a liberal arts bachelors degree. Like many students, he didn’t worry too much about the numbers as he signed loan papers at the start of each semester. The debt totals and their corresponding monthly payments, due some time in the future, weren’t overly concerning at the time.

In the past ten years, debt levels for college graduates have more than doubled. In 1993, the average graduating student who had loans owed $9,250. Contrast that to 2004, when the average indebted student carried $19,200 in college loans. While less than 50% of four-year college grads had college debt in 1993, by 2004 that number has increased to 66%.

One of the main factors contributing to this rise is the decrease in public money available for colleges in the wake of the financial crisis. As state and local budgets tighten, colleges and universities often lose a portion of their funding, and this shortfall is passed on to students, who with their parents must bridge the gap with larger and larger loans.

Ben is not alone when it comes to higher-than-average college debt. At private non-profit colleges, like the one Ben attended, over 73% of graduating seniors carry student loans. Of those, a full 10% have loans in excess of $40,000. These high levels of debt are problematic for those entering the workforce and beginning their careers. Instead of being able to save money and invest enough for their future, let alone save for their own children’s educations, they are spending hundreds of dollars each month on loan payments.

Large debts likewise prevent college graduates from furthering their education. More than 40% of college grads who choose not to pursue a Master’s degree or doctorate cite college debt levels as a primary reason. Faced with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, many decide that enough is enough.

Rising student debt has a hidden cost to society: talented graduates forgoing good but lesser-paying jobs, in order to make enough to pay back what they owe. Faced with large monthly debt payments, Ben decided to work as a salesman where he’d make more money than in the other positions he considered-and even preferred.

“Student debt has a major impact on what careers young people choose. Large college loan payments discourage students from rewarding, albeit low-paying, sectors such as teaching or public service, that they would otherwise consider,”  said Edie Irons, communications director at the Project on Student Debt.

In 2002, a full 54% of former students reported that they would have borrowed less money for college if they had it to do over again. While it is little consolation to those already deeply in debt, students starting their college careers can find ways to limit their student debt loads as much as possible. Irons does not see debt-free college as realistic for most average American families, but believes the average amount of debt should and can be less than it is. To that end, it’s important that prospective college students seek as much grant money and private scholarships as possible, before relying solely on loans that need to be repaid.

Students should meet with financial aid officers and career development personnel to get a realistic view of how much debt they will incur while attaining their degrees, and how much they will likely earn when beginning their chosen professions. An accurate projection of their financial picture upon graduation can help students make better financial decisions while in school. Financial counseling for students needs overall improvement, as scores of students leave their alma mater with credit card balances and expensive car loans in addition to education debt.

In an effort to ensure that student loans don’t hurt more than they help, the Project on Student Debt works to identify and develop solutions for those burdened with unmanageable college debt. Income-Based Repayment is one of these.

Under a new federal loan repayment plan based on a model developed by the Project, students with federal loans are guaranteed  that their monthly student loan payments won’t exceed a certain percentage of their income (15% of discretionary income, which is classified as everything over 150% of the federal poverty level). This legislation, signed into law a year ago, takes effect  in July 2009 and applies to all federal student loans, past or present.

“Income-based repayment is important because it provides a guarantee that if a student makes a bad calculation and borrows more than he’s able to afford, there’s a reasonable safety net. It’s not a free pass. They still owe the money and have to pay it back, but this makes it affordable,” said Irons.

Loan forgiveness programs for those working in the public sector or for charitable non-profits are also underway. Ten years of qualified employment as well as loan payments are required for an applicant’s remaining debt to be erased. Irons believes that this incentive will encourage more jobs in fields such as teaching, law enforcement and state and local governing.

While many students and former students will benefit from the new legislation, Ben won’t be one of them. His student debt is primarily private loans through his college, and the legislation applies only to federal student loans. A full 80% of student loans are from government sources, and private college loans makes up the other 20%. For students with private debt, benefits such as loan deferment and forbearance are not guaranteed by the government. Their interest rates are also usually higher, translating into larger payments.

For Ben, the reality of a $40,000 debt has just begun to sink in.