A Generation Hobbled by the Soaring Cost of College
By ANDREW MARTIN and ANDREW W. LEHREN
ADA, Ohio — Kelsey Griffith graduates on Sunday from Ohio Northern University. To start paying off her $120,000 in student debt, she is already working two restaurant jobs and will soon give up her apartment here to live with her parents. Her mother, who co-signed on the loans, is taking out a life insurance policy on her daughter.
“If anything ever happened, God forbid, that is my debt also,” said Ms. Griffith’s mother, Marlene Griffith.
Ms. Griffith, 23, wouldn’t seem a perfect financial fit for a college that costs nearly $50,000 a year. Her father, a paramedic, and mother, a preschool teacher, have modest incomes, and she has four sisters. But when she visited Ohio Northern, she was won over by faculty and admissions staff members who urge students to pursue their dreams rather than obsess on the sticker price.
“As an 18-year-old, it sounded like a good fit to me, and the school really sold it,” said Ms. Griffith, a marketing major. “I knew a private school would cost a lot of money. But when I graduate, I’m going to owe like $900 a month. No one told me that.”
With more than $1 trillion in student loans outstanding in this country, crippling debt is no longer confined to dropouts from for-profit colleges or graduate students who owe on many years of education, some of the overextended debtors in years past. As prices soar, a college degree statistically remains a good lifetime investment, but it often comes with an unprecedented financial burden.
About two-thirds of bachelor’s degree recipients borrow money to attend college, either from the government or private lenders, according to a Department of Education survey of 2007-8 graduates; the total number of borrowers is most likely higher since the survey does not track borrowing from family members.
By contrast, 45 percent of 1992-93 graduates borrowed money; that survey included family borrowing as well as government and private loans.
For all borrowers, the average debt in 2011 was $23,300, with 10 percent owing more than $54,000 and 3 percent more than $100,000, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports. Average debt for bachelor degree graduates who took out loans ranges from under $10,000 at elite schools like Princeton and Williams College, which have plenty of wealthy students and enormous endowments, to nearly $50,000 at some private colleges with less affluent students and less financial aid.
Here at Ohio Northern, recent graduates with bachelor’s degrees are among the most indebted of any college in the country, and statewide, graduates of Ohio’s more than 200 colleges and universities carry some of the highest average debt in the country, according to data reported by the colleges and compiled by an educational advocacy group. The current balance of federal student loans nationwide is $902 billion, with an additional $140 billion or so in private student loans.
“If one is not thinking about where this is headed over the next two or three years, you are just completely missing the warning signs,” said Rajeev V. Date, deputy director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal watchdog created after the financial crisis.
Mr. Date likened excessive student borrowing to risky mortgages. And as with the housing bubble before the economic collapse, the extraordinary growth in student loans has caught many by surprise. But its roots are in fact deep, and the cast of contributing characters — including college marketing officers, state lawmakers wielding a budget ax and wide-eyed students and families — has been enabled by a basic economic dynamic: an insatiable demand for a college education, at almost any price, and plenty of easy-to-secure loans, primarily from the federal government.
The roots of the borrowing binge date to the 1980s, when tuition for four-year colleges began to rise faster than family incomes. In the 1990s, for-profit colleges boomed by spending heavily on marketing and recruiting. Despite some ethical lapses and fraud, enrollment more than doubled in the last decade and Wall Street swooned over the stocks. Roughly 11 percent of college students now attend for-profit colleges, and they receive about a quarter of federal student loans and grants.
In the last decade, even as enrollment at state colleges and universities has grown, some states have cut spending for higher education and many others have not allocated enough money to keep pace with the growing student body. That trend has accelerated as state budgets have shrunk because of the recent financial crisis and the unpopularity of tax increases.
Nationally, state and local spending per college student, adjusted for inflation, reached a 25-year low this year, jeopardizing the long-held conviction that state-subsidized higher education is an affordable steppingstone for the lower and middle classes. All the while, the cost of tuition and fees has continued to increase faster than the rate of inflation, faster even than medical spending. If the trends continue through 2016, the average cost of a public college will have more than doubled in just 15 years, according to the Department of Education.
Much like the mortgage brokers who promised pain-free borrowing to homeowners just a few years back, many colleges don’t offer warnings about student debt in the glossy brochures and pitch letters mailed to prospective students. Instead, reading from the same handbook as for-profit colleges, they urge students not to worry about the costs. That’s because most students don’t pay full price.
Even discounted, the price is beyond the means of many. Yet too often, students and their parents listen without question.
“I readily admit it,” said E. Gordon Gee, the president of Ohio State University, who has also served as president of Vanderbilt and Brown, among others. “I didn’t think a lot about costs. I do not think we have given significant thought to the impact of college costs on families.”
Of course, 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. And most college students in the United States manage to eventually pay back their student loans.
To that end, the Obama administration has given out more grants and loans than ever to more and more college students with the goal of making the United States first among developed nations in college completion. The balance of federal student loans has grown by more than 60 percent in the last five years. And in 2007, Congress made sure the interest rates on many of those loans were well below commercial rates; currently, a debate over keeping those lower rates from doubling in July is roiling lawmakers.
But even if student loans are what many economists consider “good debt,” an increasing number of borrowers are struggling to pay them off, and in the process becoming mired in a financial morass.
Education Department data shows that payments are being made on just 38 percent of the balance of federal student loans, down from 46 percent five years ago. The balances are unpaid because the borrowers are still in school, have postponed payments or have stopped paying altogether.
Nearly one in 10 borrowers who started repayment in 2009 defaulted within two years, the latest data available — about double the rate in 2005.
Economists do not predict a collapse of the student loan system, which would, in essence, mean wholesale default. And if there were one, it would be unlikely to ripple through the economy with the same devastating impact as the mortgage crash. Though now larger than credit card and other consumer debt, the student loan balance remains smaller than the mortgage market, and most student loans are issued by the federal government, meaning banks wouldn’t be affected as much.
Still, economists say, growing student debt hangs over the economic recovery like a dark cloud for a generation of college graduates and indebted dropouts. A study of recent college graduates conducted by researchers at Rutgers University and released last week found that 40 percent of the participants had delayed making a major purchase, like a home or car, because of college debt, while slightly more than a quarter had put off continuing their education or had moved in with relatives to save money. Roughly half of the surveyed graduates had a full-time job.
“I’ll be paying this forever,” said Chelsea Grove, 24, who dropped out of Bowling Green State University and owes $70,000 in student loans. She is working three jobs to pay her $510 monthly obligation and has no intention of going back . . . http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/13/business/student-loans-weighing-down-a-generation-with-heavy-debt.html?ref=business