News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

October 30, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Students who reach for a college education too often are buried under a pile of debt

TERRE HAUTE — Right now, millions of college graduates are wondering whether their education was worth the effort.

That doubt hurts the country. The dream of earning a university degree shouldn’t look like a dark financial tunnel. Yet, for the first time ever, outstanding student-loan debt by Americans exceeds $1 trillion, surpassing even credit-card debt. Why? The average tuition costs at a public university increased 8.3 percent this year, according to the College Board, while average family incomes have fallen for the past three years. The grand-total for tuition, room and board at the average public college in the United States now tops $17,000 a year. At Indiana’s six public colleges, tuition prices rose 300 percent in the past 20 years.

Whose income is 300 percent higher than it was in 1981? Maybe somebody who was a 6-year-old that year.

Today, the average student debt load for a Hoosier college graduate totals to between $22,000 and $25,000, said Teresa Lubbers, Indiana commissioner for higher education. That burden ranks Indiana 13th highest among the 50 states. Meanwhile, we rank 45th in the nation in the number of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree.

This month, lights finally began to flicker at the end of that dark financial tunnel.

People, especially those in the right places, are really listening. Concerned college students and their families are being heard.

In some cases.

Indiana State University reduced its planned 3.5-percent tuition increase for the 2012-13 year to 1.5 percent. A modest gesture, but bravo to ISU President Daniel Bradley and the board of trustees. Days later, Indiana University announced a 25-percent tuition discount for its summer-term tuition. Yes, summer enrollment pales in comparison to that of fall and spring semesters, but, again, bravo to IU for its baby step. The other state colleges should follow ISU’s lead, just as IU did.

Then last week, President Obama opted to use an executive order (bypassing a perpetually obstinate Congress) to make college loan paybacks more affordable, and will fund the move by cutting federal subsidies to private banks. Graduates’ loan repayments will be capped at 10 percent of their discretionary income, saving 1.6 million low-income people as much as a couple hundred bucks a month. Nearly 6 million Americans with multiple student loans will be allowed to consolidate their debt, saving them interest costs. Bravo.

Of course, none of this comes simply. Cutting tuition prices isn’t just a matter of belt-tightening. Most colleges have been doing that, because states are covering a decreasing percentage of their public universities’ expenses. Profs, administrators and staff employees hope for pay raises, just like the rest of us. Programs and facilities are important, too. More and more, student fees are relied upon.

At some point, something’s got to give. And soon. Congress apparently doesn’t care, but next July, interest rates on federal student loans are scheduled to double. Yet, instead of stepping in on behalf of the key to the nation’s future — our young, bright minds — leaders of the U.S. House seem more concerned about the tax levels of people already living the lifestyle those collegians aspire to attain.

A student at a town hall meeting in Muskego asked House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a 41-year-old Republican from Wisconsin, why the GOP budget proposal for 2012 would cut the maximum $5,500 Pell Grants by 15 percent and also further limit eligibility for that program. Ryan answered, according to the Los Angeles Times, “Pell Grants have become unsustainable. It’s all borrowed money. … Look, I worked three jobs to pay off my student loans after college. I didn’t get grants. I got loans, and we need to have a system of viable student loans to be able to do this.”

Twenty years ago (Ryan graduated from Miami-Ohio in 1992), tuition was a couple-hundred percent cheaper. One job — let alone a second or third — was easier to find in the 1990s, too.

It’s really, especially in lean times, a matter of priorities. That Republican federal budget plan cuts Pell Grant funds by $3.6 billion, while also sustaining $13.5 billion of Bush tax breaks on income from investor dividends, and $4.1 billion in oil and gas industry tax breaks. Apparently, those tax breaks strengthen America more than helping low-income college students avoid massive loan debts.

Some states have initiated affordability measures, including Indiana’s stellar 21st-Century Scholars program. Expanded community college systems, such as Ivy Tech, have opened a door to a solid education at a reasonable price and with a greater possibility of scholarships. Thousands of students seeking bachelor’s degrees have turned to lower-priced community colleges for general-education courses before transferring to a four-year university. Still, those options don’t fit every student. The bottom line — the continual escalation of a public university degree needs to end. While colleges must function more efficiently to control costs, states should maintain their slice of the public universities’ bills. In Indiana, overall spending on higher education will rise 10.2 percent from $1.54 billion in 2006 to $1.7 billion in 2013, according to Gov. Mitch Daniels’ office. However, the ratio of state dollars to overall institutional operational expenditures has declined in recent years. State support covered roughly 40 percent of the public colleges’ operating expenses in 2009; that portion dropped to 37 percent in 2011, according to Jason Bearce, Indiana associate commissioner for higher education.

Why is an affordable college education an urgent need? Because by 2018, 55 percent of all jobs in Indiana will require some form of post-secondary education, according to the Lumina Foundation. The state needs about 1 million more people with college training to fill that upcoming need. Those folks shouldn’t have to spend as much time paying off student loans as they do their first house.

“These affordability issues are critically important,” Lubbers, the state higher ed commissioner, said in a telephone interview earlier this month. “We don’t want students to be saddled with incredible debt.”

ISU found a way to address the problem. IU followed in a small way. President Obama took significant action. More must be done. A better educated America should be a top priority.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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