Student Debt: The Next Crisis?

Sixty-two percent of Bowling Green graduates have debt that averages $31,515. Wow. That’s most likely enough to buy one of the better houses in Cleveland. Sigh.

I believe that a college education is an investment that pays off over the course of a working lifetime. And it’s an investment that pays big dividends to our economic prosperity, the strength and vitality of our communities, and to our free society.

Sadly, it’s an investment that state officials and taxpayers are starting to pull back from. And it’s becoming more and more difficult for middle- and lower-income students and their families to finance a college education without mortgaging their futures. Note to education administrators: There is a limit to how much students can — and are willing — to pay. This isn’t like hiring football and basketball coaches where money isn’t an issue.

Two excellent articles in the NYT examine the student debt crisis — while putting the spotlight on the issues involving education financing in Ohio.

Here’s from “A Generation Hobbled by the Soaring Cost of College“:

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. Now nearly everyone pursuing a bachelor’s degree is borrowing. As prices soar, a college degree statistically remains a good lifetime investment, but it often comes with an unprecedented financial burden.

Ninety-four percent of students who earn a bachelor’s degree borrow to pay for higher education — up from 45 percent in 1993, according to an analysis by The New York Times of the latest data from the Department of Education. This includes loans from the federal government, private lenders and relatives.

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.

And:

“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.

And here’s the policy issue:

From 2001 to 2011, state and local financing per student declined by 24 percent nationally. Over the same period, tuition and fees at state schools increased 72 percent, compared with 29 percent for nonprofit private institutions, according to the College Board. Many of the cuts were the result of a sluggish economy that reduced tax revenue, but the sharp drop in per-student spending also reflects a change: an increasing number of lawmakers voted to transfer more of the financial burden of college from taxpayers to students and their families. (Local funding is a small percentage of the total, and mostly goes to community colleges.)

“To say that tuition goes up because the state doesn’t pay enough money, well, that is the taxpayers’ money,” said Ohio’s governor, John Kasich, a Republican elected in 2010 whose budget included cuts to higher education because of the end of federal stimulus money.

Donald E. Heller, an expert on higher education, said elected officials in both parties had figured out that colleges were one of the few parts of state government that could raise money on their own. If lawmakers cut state financing, the schools could make it up by raising tuition.

And in Ohio:

Ohio’s flagship university, Ohio State, now receives 7 percent of its budget from the state, down from 15 percent a decade ago and 25 percent in 1990. The price of tuition and fees since 2002 increased about 60 percent in today’s dollars.

The consequence? Three out of five undergraduates at Ohio State take out loans, and the average debt is $24,840.

If any state is representative of the role government has played in the growth of student debt, Ohio makes a good candidate. While other states have made steeper cuts in recent years because of the recession, Ohio has been chipping away at it far longer. It now ranks sixth from the bottom in financing per student, at $4,480.

In the late 1970s, higher education in Ohio accounted for 17 percent of the state’s expenditures. Now it is 11 percent. By contrast, prisons were 4 percent of the state’s budget in the late 1970s; now they account for 8 percent. Federal mandates and court orders have compelled lawmakers to spend more money on Medicaid and primary education, too. Legislators could designate a greater percentage of the budget to higher education by raising taxes, but there is no appetite for that. Governor Kasich has signed a pledge not to raise taxes, as have about two dozen legislators.

Some Ohio elected officials say state colleges and universities have brought the debt problem upon themselves.

They suggest, for example, that state schools are bloated, antiquated and don’t do a good enough job graduating students or training them for the work force. Some complain about the salaries of football coaches and college presidents, like Mr. Gee, who has a compensation package of $2 million a year as president of Ohio State. Mr. Kasich questions why all state universities need to offer every major, like journalism or engineering, instead of parceling those programs among the schools.

“It’s not just inefficiencies,” said the governor, an Ohio State graduate. “It’s, ‘I want to be the best in this.’ It’s duplication of resources. It’s a sweeping change that is needed across academia.”

And here’s from the second NYT article, “Slowly, as Student Debt Rises, Colleges Confront Costs“:

In a wood-paneled office lined with books, sports memorabilia and framed posters (including John Belushi in “Animal House”), E. Gordon Gee, the president of Ohio State University, keeps a framed quotation that reads, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

Mr. Gee, who is often identified with a big salary and spendthrift ways, says he has taken the quotation to heart, and he is now trying to persuade Ohio State’s vast bureaucracy, and the broader world of academia, to do the same.

At a time of diminished state funding for higher education and uncertain federal dollars, Mr. Gee says that public colleges and universities need to devise a new business model to pay for the costs of education, beyond sticking students with higher tuition and greater debt.

“The notion that universities can do business the very same way has to stop,” said Mr. Gee, who is also the chairman of a commission studying college attainment, including the impact of student debt.

College presidents across the country are confronting the same realization, trying to manage their institutions with fewer state dollars without sacrificing quality or all-important academic rankings. Tuition increases had been a relatively easy fix but now — with the balance of student debt topping $1 trillion and an increasing number of borrowers struggling to pay — some administrators acknowledge that they cannot keep putting the financial onus on students and their families.

An important issue.

And one we need to address soon — and correctly — before it becomes the next crisis.

Especially in a state like Ohio, we desperately need a skilled workforce — and the kind of quality jobs that will keep them from relocating to other areas.

Hey. Somebody has to be able to afford to buy the houses in Cleveland and elsewhere.

 

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One response to “Student Debt: The Next Crisis?

  1. burghthoughts

    I fully expect the following by September: Prez. O-“i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-think that maybe, possibly, as I have eveolved on this issue, that all student loans should be forgiven.” Not that he can do anything about it, but it shores up the U-23 and the OWS vote. Watch….

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