Students seek relief from mounting debt

CHICAGO — Graduating with a college degree is more than ever a necessity today. Students and their families are doing whatever it takes to pay for higher education, including taking on excessive amounts of debt.

As the costs of college have soared, average student debt levels have more than doubled in the last decade, and nearly two-thirds of four-year college graduates now have student loans, according to Thirty-nine percent of student borrowers graduate with unmanageable levels of federal student loan debt. The number of students graduating owing over $25,000 has tripled since the early 1990s.

“If people don’t take out student loans, then how will they pay for their education?” asked Paul Rockwood, 20, a junior majoring in criminal justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).

Joining Rockwood as he worked at an information desk on campus was Hina Shaikh, 19, a third-year architecture major. She added, “There are a lot of people who want to go to college but they can’t because they don’t have the money.” Generations of potential college students wind up working at McDonald’s and Burger King, she commented. “They can’t move on, they’re just stuck there.”

Phillip Mosley, 19, an African American junior studying accounting, said attending UIC costs roughly $10,000 a year if you live off campus, and $20,000 if you live on campus. It’s expensive, he said, especially if you can’t get help from your parents. Mosley told the World he is certain to have $27,000 in student loan debt, not including interest, after he graduates. He wants to go to graduate school, which could easily mean another $40,000 in loans.

“You’ll be in debt for at least 25 years,” said Mosley. “I feel like considering only getting my bachelor’s and not a master’s.” He added, “There is not enough money going toward education.”

Ashley Ruggles, 22, a senior psychology major, said, “A lot more people would take advantage of higher education if the government paid for everyone.” Sitting with a book before her next class, Ruggles told the World she had considered not going to college because it was too expensive, especially since her parents could do little to assist her. Ruggles said the federal government should devote more money toward positive things rather than on building jails or the Iraq war.

Lauren Asher, associate director of the California-based Project on Student Debt, said in a phone interview that, over the years, higher education costs have shifted more and more onto students and their families, while state tuition and other fees have risen.

Asher’s organization works to make higher education more available and affordable for people of all backgrounds and is a member of the College Affordability Coalition.

“The aid has not kept up and Pell Grants have eroded,” she said. Student loans can provide educational opportunity for students, she noted, but having student loans the only way to pay, especially for lower income students, “sends mixed messages” about the importance of higher education. Asher said students are beginning to speak out on this issue and it is starting to get national attention.

Chris Lindstrom, director of the Affordable Higher Education Project, told the World, “The more young people go to college the better off we are as a society. And the more people are likely to vote.”

“Our society has relied on going to college. Students help solve our problems and for that reason people need to become educated,” she said. However, grants and financial aid just don’t cover as much as they did 10 and 15 years ago.

New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has exposed scandals in the $85 billion student loan industry, in which loan firms have offered gifts and payments to college financial aid officers to promote business among student borrowers.

The House of Representatives last month overwhelmingly passed a bill that would require colleges and lenders to abide by new codes of conduct; ban gifts from lenders to aid officers; require disclosure of college-lender links; and protect students from aggressive marketing. It would affect major lenders such as Sallie Mae, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and Citigroup. The senate has not yet acted on the bill.

Lindstrom commented, “This is very much a question of how we curb the banks and lenders who are very anti-public and are only trying to make more profits. The bottom line is we need more aid.”

United States Students Association President Jennifer Pae said the private loan industry has grown exponentially off the backs of the most vulnerable students.

“Congressional action is needed now more than ever,” Pae told the World. “We encourage students and their allies to contact their representatives,” she said.

The root problem is that resources are not being allocated toward higher education, said Geoff Banks, a UIC sociology graduate student who said he owes at least $30,000 so far. It “doesn’t hit you until the loan bills start coming in the mail right after you graduate,” he said.