Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Rising Student Loan Debts: Current U.S. Facts & Figures

While everyone from high school teachers and guidance counselors to President Obama have long been encouraging young people to attend college, there is one aspect of post-secondary life that many conveniently forget to seriously discuss: student loan debt. College can be integral in obtaining certain kinds of employment and helping to expand one's intellect, but the costs with it often deter many from attending and some from even applying for admission. This is especially true in low-income communities which see a lower percentage of high school graduates attending 2- or 4-year colleges or universities (here). Those who do attend college, despite rising costs, tend to graduate with a substantial amount of debt.  Currently, a large percentage of young people are taking on federal and/or private loans with little discussion of interest rates and, most importantly, what the final debt will actually be leaving many shocked at the final figure.


The National Post-Secondary Aid Study (NPSAS), conducted by the Department of Education, is a nationwide survey designed to determine how undergraduate students and their parents pay for college. In 2008, NPSAS found that 67% of students graduating from 4-year colleges or universities had student loan debt; this is a 27% increase from 2004. NPSAS also found that:
  • 62% of graduates from public universities had student loans
  • 72% of graduates from private, non-profit universities had student loans
  • 96% of graduates from private, for-profit universities had student loans
Acquiring loans in itself is not necessarily a bad thing as many families do not have huge sums of money saved in order to pay for college outright. The amount of debt that students are taking on, however, has steadily increased over the years. 
  • Average debt at public universities: $20,200; a 20% increase from the average of $16,850 in 2004
  • Average debt at private, non-profit universities: $27,650; a 29% increase from the average of $21,500 in 2004
  • Average debt at private, for-profit universities: 33,050; a 23% increase from the average of $26,850 in 2004
If these debt averages were not high enough, more students than ever are graduating with $40,000 or more in student loans. In 2008, 10% of the graduates from 4-year colleges or universities owed at least $40,000, up from just 3% in 1996. To put it in actual figures, the number of students graduating with substantial debt has increased from about 23,000 students in 1996 to 206,000 students in 2010. There does seem to be racial differences in the percentage of students with high debt as African Americans are the most likely among all racial/ethnic groups to graduate with high debt (again $40,000+). Unfortunately, 4 out of 5 borrowers with high debt have private, non-federal loans which lack important repayment options and consumer protections  afforded to those with federal loans.

Low income students, who are generally thought to reap most of the benefits of financial aid, are also not escaping huge student loan debts. The NPSAS revealed that Pell Grant recipients, whose families earn less than $50,000 per year, are not only much more likely to borrow money for college but also  more likely to borrow more than a non-Pell Grant recipient. Specifically, among graduating seniors who had received a Pell Grant, 87% had student loans with an average debt of $24,800;  fourteen percent of Pell Grant recipients graduated with $40,000 or more in loan debt. Pell Grant recipients who graduate from 4-year for-profit colleges or universities are also more likely to carry at least $40,000 in debt.

In covering the increase in student loan debt, The Huffington Post recently published a story entitled "Majoring in Debt" about college or graduate students with astronomical amounts of debt (see here). The stories presented clearly indicate the ways in which debt can stop one from making decisions such as going to graduate school and starting a business. They also illustrate how debt can change one's perspective on the years they spent in college or graduate school. Jason Watson is a an example of this; Watson, law student at the University of South Carolina, will be $150,000 in debt by the time he graduates. In the article, he states "The debt feels crushing to say the least and it leaves me wondering whether the benefit of a legal education will be worth its cost (here)" Another featured student, Scott Adams, agrees with this sentiment saying "I was just trying to get ahead and it put me more behind. College is a scam unless you can pay for it or get it for free (here)." The ability to enjoy the supposed financial benefits of advanced education is also questioned as Watson says "I'm not sure how I will be able to provide for my wife and son while coping with debt I've amassed in six short years (here)." Other students grapple with their decision to attend college and wonder if attending is a Catch-22; Bliss Davis, an undergraduate at Bowling Green State University who is $40,000 in debt, says "The hardest part about owing so much is knowing that I am being judged for my decision to go to school. If I had not gone to college, I would be considered another statistical waste of space (here)."

Due to the increasing amount of debt that undergraduate students are at times forced to take on, it is imperative that teachers, guidance counselors, and parents speak with their students/children about the potential long term effects of substantial debt. This will result in an informed decision regarding where and whether to attend school at the time. At a higher level, politicians and education 'reformers' should come to understand that one's socioeconomic status and ability to access loans do matter. Therefore, schools and communities, especially those with a high percentage of low income students, should not penalized or looked down upon if students are choosing to forgo college in high numbers. For many, the debt associated with higher education does not outweigh the benefits of an undergraduate degree even if such debt is considered "good."  This may especially be true if the high unemployment and underemployment rates, particularly in low income communities and among people of color, are considered. While student loan debt is ultimately in the hands of the student who incurred it, the state and federal government should look for ways to mitigate crushing debts related to college education in order to make higher learning accessible to anyone who desires to obtain it.


Sources:
http://projectonstudentdebt.org/files/File/Debt_Facts_and_Sources.pdf
http://ticas.org/files/pub/High_Hopes_Big_Debts_2008.pdf

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