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Monday, December 5, 2016

Student Loans

On Monday, federally subsidized student loan rates doubled because Congress failed to pass a permanent solution to relieve our debt-stricken students (or even to extend the current rates until they could agree on a plan). There are very few policy issues more deserving of our representatives’ attention.

As we hear in our Democracy Corps focus groups and surveys, middle-class and working people desperately want Congress to address the cost of higher education. Students who can afford the high and rising costs of board, tuition, and fees — which now average $22,261 at public schools and $43,289 at private schools — do not need to worry about student loan interest rates doubling.  This is only about those families who cannot afford to pay for the rising cost of higher education.

At one point or another in our careers, James, Stan, and I have all taught at colleges or universities, so this is a topic about which we feel strongly.  As James recalled in It’s the Middle Class, Stupid!, he was able to pay his law school tuition out of pocket in the 1970s, even though he was not wealthy. The result, James noted, was that state colleges and universities “functioned as a kind of equalizer.”

That is no longer true.  The average all-in cost of private colleges in the U.S. is almost equal to the median household income (which hovers around $50,000).  But as James noted, it was not always this way. Our very smart friends at the Economic Policy Institute note that while median household income increased 10.9 percent from 1983 to 2013, the average cost of public school tuition rose 130 percent — leaving many families in the dust, and very much reliant on student loans.

Add to this the ongoing economic stagnation for middle class and working Americans, and we are looking at a crisis that could be crippling. We all know that young people face diminished job prospects out of school.  But this crisis is not limited to 20-somethings.  It also hits those in their 30s and 40s — who pay their student loans from stagnant or diminishing incomes — and those in their 50s and 60s who struggle to pay mortgages, save for retirement, and put their children through school.

Next week, Democracy Corps will release a serious report on recent focus groups we conducted in Orlando and Columbus for the Economic Media Project.  One of the things that struck us in these groups was how much we heard about the student loan crisis — and participants did call it a crisis:

“People coming out of college are getting off on the wrong foot.  My husband has $58,000 worth of student loans and isn’t making even close to what he needs to be making to pay it off.  They’re saying that you need all this education to get these jobs to make more money but yet you come out of college with all this debt and you can’t ever catch up.”

“I have plenty of student loans that I’m paying.  I have a degree. I’m working as a bartender not by choice; not saying I love it but I make more money doing that than any position I could get with my degree so I pay my student loans as a bartender.”

“I can’t go to school because my credit is bad because of my previous school loans but I can’t afford to pay them. There’s not really anything I can do to better my education because I can’t afford it and I can’t get a loan.”

“It’s important to have an education but the cost …I wonder is it worth it?”

“When you come out of school you’re $50,000 or $100,000 in debt. You’re lucky if you’re making, you know, $30,000 or $40,000 a year. That’s paying your bills. That’s paying your rent. You’re not paying off your debt so you’re never getting ahead.”

“It’s more for the financial reasons where, you know, we have a student loan crisis basically where you’re getting into so much debt to get that degree, to get that better job, that that is becoming cyclical where you are working just to pay off your student loans so it’s almost, it’s a double-edged sword.”

When Congress returns after the holiday week, I hope they commit themselves to the students who would like to return to school next fall, but are having a hard time budgeting for it.

Photo by “thisisbossi” via Flickr.com

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