Student Loans: Debt for Life
This much we know: College pays. You can lose your house to foreclosure, but never your education. Four-year college graduates’ pay advantage over high school grads has doubled over the past 30 years. If money for tuition is tight, the advice goes, borrow what you need. Students have been listening. In 2010 student debt exceeded credit-card debt for the first time. In 2011 it surpassed loans for vehicles. In March, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced that student debt had passed $1 trillion. It grew by $300 billion from the third quarter of 2008 even as other forms of debt shrank by $1.6 trillion, according to a separate tabulation by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In a press briefing at the White House in April, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, “Obviously if you have no debt that’s maybe the best situation, but this is not bad debt to have. In fact, it’s very good debt to have.”
If student loans are good debt, how do you account for the reaction of Christina Mills, 30, of Minneapolis, when she found out her payment on college and loans from law school would be $1,400 a month? “I just went into the car and started sobbing,” says Mills, who works for a nonprofit. “It was more than my paycheck at the time.” Medical student Thomas Smith, 25, of Hamilton, N.J., is $310,000 in debt and is struggling to make ends meet even before beginning to repay his loans. “I don’t even know what I eat,” he says. “I just go to the supermarket and buy the cheapest thing I can and buy as much of it as I can.” Then there’s Michael DiPietro, 25, of Brooklyn, who accumulated about $100,000 in debt while getting a bachelor’s degree in fashion, sculpture, and performance, and spent the next two years waiting tables. He has since landed a fundraising job in the arts but still has no idea how he will pay back all that money. “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s an obsolete idea that a college education is like your golden ticket,” DiPietro says. “It’s an idea that an older generation holds on to.”
Even if you buy into the notion that education debt is good debt, at what point does it become too much of a good thing? Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org, which researches aid to financially assist students, estimates that student debt, compounded by rising enrollments, is growing by nearly $3,000 a second.
“The question isn’t the debt per se. It’s what the students are getting in return,” says Richard Arum, a New York University sociologist who specializes in education. Many students are incurring heavy debts for an education (ethnomusicology, theater arts) that just isn’t worth it from a strictly financial viewpoint. (Money isn’t everything, but try telling that to the collection agency.) Education is a benefit to society by creating a workforce that creates wealth, pays taxes, and stays off welfare. But state governments—whose schools educate 7 in 10 students—have raised tuition abruptly because of their own financial problems. So far the federal government has offset the state cutbacks by boosting financial aid, but Education Under Secretary Martha Kanter testified to Congress earlier this year that “this path is not fiscally sustainable.”
There’s a lot of speculation that college debt is the next bubble after housing, the latest sector in which prices leap above real value. American colleges may not be turning out the kind of graduates that employers want. In Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, NYU’s Arum and sociologist Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia write that employers are being forced to turn to foreigners or graduate and professional schools to fill jobs that they once filled with homegrown college graduates.
That’s the value side. The cost side is ugly, too. The economic slump that began in 2007 has forced people to pay more for college even as it has driven more of them into it as a refuge from an unfriendly job market. The National Center for Education Statistics projects that college attendance this fall will be up 19 percent from the fall of 2007. Meanwhile, state and local support for higher education last year was the lowest in 25 years of measurement, in inflation-adjusted dollars per student, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Two-thirds of college seniors graduated with loans in 2010, and those who did had an average of about $25,000, according to the Institute for College Access & Success.
firstname.lastname@example.org posted on September 06, 2012 14:08