College debt daze
It’s tough to make the math work on a social worker’s starting salary and $80,000 in student loans. But that’s what 23-year-old Jillian Potter, a recent graduate of Anderson University in Indiana, is now up against. Hers is one of the millions of stories that now add up to almost $1 trillion in student debt being carried by Americans, a weighty burden that was the focus of a 4,600-word front-page story in yesterday’s New York Times.
The debt crunch began to grow starting in the 1980s, when college costs began growing at a rate faster than family incomes. The world of college debt is now nearly a universal phenomenon of those seeking higher education: The Times story says 94 percent of all students earning a bachelor’s degree today have borrowed to help finance their education, more than double the 45 percent who did so in 1993. For those with debt in 2011, the average amount owed was $23,300, and 10 percent owed more than $54,000.
The student debt crunch was explored in this story earlier this year in CommonWealth, which reported that Massachusetts college grads in the class of 2010 carried the 14th highest student debt load in the country ($25,541), while New Hampshire students had the dubious distinction of ranking first ($31,048). The Times story describes a double-whammy that is hitting public higher education students: rising college costs at a time when state support for higher ed has been declining. From 2001 to 2011, state and local support for public higher education per student has declined 24 percent nationally, a period during which tuition and fees at public colleges and universities shot up 72 percent.
The rising cost of college — and the increasing debt burden of US college students and graduates — was documented in a 2010 MassINC research report, Planning for College: A Consumer Approach to the Higher Education Marketplace. The report called for far greater transparency in the college financing process — and for more attention to the quality measures that would help students and families make more informed choices in selecting a college.
Smarter, more informed decision-making is key to avoiding paths that lead to crippling levels of student debt. These days, however, almost everyone ends up doing some borrowing, and there’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t quality to the college debt discussion. As the Times story notes, “economists and many parents say that the only thing worse than graduating with lots of debt is not going to college at all, since study after study has shown that graduates earn more over a lifetime.”
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