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Diverse Conversations: Reforming College Debt

College DebtIf the P-12 education system is all about preparing its students for success in adulthood, then college preparation obviously is a must. In the fall of 2012, 66 percent of high school graduates from that year were enrolled in college, and that number does not include students who waited longer to enroll or nontraditional adult students. It seems that P-12 classrooms are getting more students ready for the academic demands of a college education, but what about the financial commitment?

Let’s first look at the inherent problems with the college payment and lending system, both private and public, as it stands today. In Part II, we’ll look at potential solutions under consideration across the country.

A study by the Urban Institute found that almost 300,000 Americans with master’s degrees were on public relief, along with 30,000 with doctorates. The average debt of a college graduate is $35,200 and that can take decades to pay off. For most students, the payoff is worth it. By today’s number, a college graduate with a bachelor’s degree can expect to make nearly 1 million more than high school graduate peers in a lifetime—well over the cost to attend.

Still, with college graduation estimated to be a basic requirement for nearly 60 percent of jobs by 2018, and certainly the key to the American Dream for many young people, the question arises: Should a college education come with such a high price tag?

The timing for the call for a more affordable college education, at least in the urgency of the past decade or so, makes sense. It comes on the heels of a recession that undercut the value of a college education. Even those with a college degree were not immune to the financial hit that the economy took, and those still paying off their student loans were often left without the very job they had always assumed would pay off their educational debts. A look at the way college loans are distributed and administered was certainly in the cards as the latest generation of college graduates saw the real ramifications of payment in an economy that simply could not support it.

The Obama administration has spearheaded college loan reform at the federal level. No stranger to student debt himself (nor the First Lady), he has implemented payment reform starting this year that includes:


  • New borrowers will pay no more than 10 percent of their disposable income toward outstanding student loans.
  • Any student debt remaining will be wiped clean after 20 years.
  • Public service employees, like military members, nurses or teachers, will have their debt forgiven in 10 years if they make their payments on time.


These actions address the high cost of college attendance as it exists today—but what about the cost itself? If it is taking students half of their working careers to pay off their college loans (in some cases) and then there is still money remaining that needs to be “forgiven,” isn’t that just a little bit excessive? Of course colleges are more than simply places for students to attend class and live. College campuses are national treasures in their own ways, hubs of research and technology that have benefits that extend beyond the current students in attendance. Those perks come at a premium—but should it be the students who pay for it, and for so long?

The lifetime earnings numbers show the clear reasons why a particular student benefits from a college degree, but that thought pattern is too narrow. The economy and shared learning of the entire country sees a lift when more if its youth are educated at a college level.

Should the cost of those achievements fall on the shoulders of the students—or be financed in a more communal way?

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