Student loan debt has exceeded $1.2 trillion in the United States. Charles Lewis, accounting professor at Mesa Community College, referencing the U.S. Department of Education and The Economist said, “I have generally tried to stay aware of the statistics.” Every year for the past two decades, college costs have risen more than one and a half percent above inflation, Lewis said. Less than half of the students had any debt whatsoever 30 years ago, Lewis explained, and now more than two-thirds of the students have student loans by the time they get out of college.
“Universities are continuing to increase their tuition and fees by an average of about 3 – 4 percent per year which is caused by the fact that states are continuing to defund postsecondary institution,” Lewis said.
Funding from the state of Arizona made up about 15 percent of Maricopa Community College District funding 10 years ago, Lewis said and grimly added, “It is now nothing, zero.” “The money has got to come from somewhere and if it continues to be defunded by the state, it can do nothing but increase on the individual students,” Lewis said. Lewis recommended that instead of students going with private loans, the students should go through student financial aid and assistance because then they are at least assured of getting something that has federal regulation behind it. “Don’t end your college career with a house mortgage, except you don’t have the house,” Lewis said. MCC Default Prevention and Loan Assistant Mayra Hernandez agreed that students should try to avoid private loans, but also avoid student loans in general if possible.
“I understand that some students prefer the private loans over the federal aid I’m here to just educate the student,” Hernandez added. Hernandez said that “student loan debt has gone up and now a lot of institutions and schools are creating programs, default programs, to try to lower the debt ratio because as well as debt affecting the students, it affects the schools too.” Hernandez shared her belief that students are not well educated in the whole process of paying back student loans and the whole outcome of it. Hernandez said, it “isn’t being given out to students or maybe it’s not being received as much by students.” “Student loans don’t need a credit check; all you’ve got to do is come in here and ask for it and it’s yours, we don’t ask for a reason,” Hernandez said.
The relaxed standards for getting the loans is attractive to some students and semesters go by quicker than they think so before they know it, they’ve borrowed $15,000 and have only been at a school like MCC for two years, Hernandez explained. The Department of Education has seen how easy it is for students to continue to borrow to their aggregate limits and has responded by creating a program called SULA, or Subsidized Usage Limit Applies, which “is designed to lower the amount that you can borrow based on the degree that you’re going toward,” Hernandez said. Hernandez recommended for students to be very cautious in their borrowing.
“This money is intended for educational purposes so if you don’t need to take out that amount of money, I would say ‘don’t’, you know, because when you finally do get that dream job and you are getting that dream check, it’s not going to be nice to be giving half of it back to student loans,” said Hernandez. Students should wait to get loans until after going to a community college, when they are going for a higher degree, Hernandez said. “If you have to borrow when you’re at a community college level or whatever level you’re at, borrow only what you need,” Hernandez added.
Taylor Parsons, a current Glendale Community College student and a future Arizona State University transfer, said that the rising student debt levels in the United States are saddening. “With the debt levels rising, it’s causing more people to not go to college or to drop out of college and not finish their education,” Parsons said. Parsons currently does not have a student loan but said she will certainly have some in the future. “Coming from a household of little money and attending a school as an out-of-state student, it’s roughly $40,000 a year, so I will have quite a large loan,” Parsons said.
Hernandez said she believed there should be some type of program for low income families in order to lower the debt for those students. There are certain programs that help students going in to fields such as nursing or law enforcement, Parsons said. Parsons said she wouldn’t change her area of study, which is women and gender studies, even though there are not programs to help her with her debt to her knowledge. “I’m studying a certain subject for a reason, because it is something that I enjoy,” Parsons said and then added, “I shouldn’t need to be in a certain area of study for the government to pay off my student loans.”
A lot of people cannot afford to go to college which is the reason they don’t go, Parsons said. If colleges and universities offered lower tuition and housing it would “really help people who can’t afford it since it drops down the price or offers no price at all,” Parsons said. “I would absolutely consider switching to a school that offered this, it will allow for lower debt costs in the future,” Parsons added. Parsons suggested students go to a community college to start with since they are often cheaper than a university and pay for it out of pocket.
Jace Padilla, a criminal justice student at Grand Canyon University, agreed and said community college is one of the best options to reduce student debt because it allows students to take prerequisite classes at a lower cost and then transfer to a university. “If you are only able to take on or two classes because of the cost, then do that,” Parsons said and added, “Slowly get your prerequisites done without having to use any student loans and that is two years of schooling down without any debt.” This advice agreed with Lewis who suggested students extend their college career and pay as they go.
“Don’t enter into the long term debt to begin with,” Lewis said. When asked about how other countries keep their student debt levels lower, Lewis said, “What it comes down to in the United States isn’t so much what is being done in other countries, what it comes down to in the United States is what is the voting population of the United States willing to value a postsecondary education at and are they willing to fund it?” Postsecondary education has been considered a personal right and a personal responsibility in the United States, Lewis said. “You’d really be looking at having to change the culture and the attitude of the culture in the United States, in my opinion, before any substantial change could be made,” Lewis added.
One of the major things that the country could do to keep debts from rising, Parsons said, is cutting the tuition costs at universities and lowering interest rates on student loans. “Lower tuition costs, lower debt levels,” Parsons said.
Padilla said that “many departments offer pay stipends and tuition assistance for those with degrees and those pursuing a degree.” Even though he has four loans out, a total of $16,000, Padilla agreed with Parsons that he would not change his area of study in order to partake in a program that only helped a certain discipline with debt. Middle class students and lower struggle the most paying for college so reduced cost colleges would reduce student debt, Padilla said. “Students should apply for every scholarship they come across,” Padilla said, adding, “Students should also work on paying back loans while still in school.” “Affordable college is in the best interest for everyone,” Padilla said.