College Dreams Clouded by Debt, Students Look to Loan Reform

By Michelle Chen Nov 14, 2009

What’s a college degree worth these days? Well, how much are you willing to pay? For many, the price of admission to higher education is crippling financial debt. Students of modest means are likely to run into even higher barriers to college access in the near future, as public universities and community colleges, as well as private institutions, jack up tuition to make up for budget shortfalls. A typical college senior graduated with more than $23,000 in debt in 2007-2008. Black students are most likely to depend on private loans to finance their college education, according to the NAACP. (Though students of all races "were about as likely to turn to private loans before taking out all they could in federal loans.") The Project on Student Debt reports that “The percentage of all undergraduates with private loans has risen dramatically, from 5% in 2003-04 to 14% in 2007-08, and the number of private loan borrowers increased from approximately 935,000 to 2,946,000.” Not a terribly promising way to start your career, especially in the midst of a slumping job market and a volatile economy. Then there’s all that additional credit card debt to cover day-to-day expenses, not to mention a housing crisis. Nearly two-thirds of private borrowers could have borrowed more through federal loans, which tend to cost less, but ended up getting saddled with private loans instead. Moreover, the Project says, about 900,000 community college students—many of them more economically burdened to begin with—can’t access federal loans through their institutions. Undocumented immigrant youth have it even tougher, since they are in many cases barred from both federal financial aid and in-state tuition discounts (the threat of deportation puts a damper on college ambitions, too). Some lawmakers have recognized these barriers and are moving on legislation to overhaul the student loan system. The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act would establish a “Direct Loan” program to replace the current subsidized lending regime. According to the House Committee on Education and Labor, the new system would be “entirely insulated from market swings and can therefore guarantee students access to low-cost federal college loans, in any economy.” To help close the higher education gap, the bill would invest $2.55 billion in historically Black and minority-serving institutions. More funding would also go to programs to expand college access, raise completion rates, and boost tuition subsidies through Pell Grants. Meanwhile, the student lending industry lobby is mounting its defense with an astroturf campaign known as the Project on Student Choice. Presumably, they’re referring to the choice to get a head start on bankruptcy before earning your first paycheck. Though America cherishes its higher education system as a great leveler, the path to advancement remains sadly uneven for youth on the wrong side of the class and color line. Disadvantaged communities already lag behind when it comes to buying a home and planning for retirement. The opportunity to begin adulthood with a clean slate is one thing Washington clearly owes the next generation. Image: St. Louis Post-Dispatch