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Editorial: Hard to get a handle on student debt

Last Modified: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 10:21 AM

Congress and college administrators appear poised to grapple with the issue of college student aid and student loan debt.

Late last year, Businessweek reported that the delinquency rate on student loans had exceeded the rate for credit cards, car loans or any other kind of consumer loan in this nation. In fact, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reported that student loan debt passed the $1 trillion mark in 2012’s last quarter.

Put another way, students leave college today with an average debt of more than $26,000. Even with a degree in hand and a solid first job, graduates are faced with paying on that student loan while also handling a car payment, a mortgage or housing rent, utilities and many other whistles and bells like cell phones and television access they deem necessary.

The quandary here is how to continue to make college accessible and affordable while discouraging the kind of loan debt that can act as a millstone around a college graduate or student.

A report entitled ‘‘American Dream 2.0’’, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said the student loan debt is causing many students to drop out of college. It noted that nearly half of the students who enroll in college fail to graduate within six years.

David Longanecker, president of Colorado’s Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, said it’s likely that Congress will not increase its appropriation for college financial aid — about $175 billion annually.

He suggests that the definition of a full-time student be changed to one taking 15 credit hours per semester, instead of the current 12 hours.

‘‘You can’t graduate on time taking 12 credits,’’ Longanecker said. ‘‘This encourages students to be more casual about their education.’’

He also said some federal aid, like Pell Grants for students from low-income families, should be linked to student achievement in college rather than need.

Businessweek points out that the federal government doesn’t consider students ability to repay the college loan when making it.

That, likely, won’t change because the prevailing thought is to make a college degree accessible to everyone.

Common sense suggests that more debt counseling should accompany student loan applications.

Other groups, like The Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit organization that advocates to make education more available and affordable for people of all backgrounds, believes Pell Grant amounts should be doubled, the student loan process should be made simpler and colleges should be rewarded for serving low-income students.

The trick here is: How does Congress and university leaders continue to make college accessible while discouraging students from running up serious debt?

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This editorial was written by a member of the American Press Editorial Board. Its content reflects the collaborative opinion of the Board, whose members include Bobby Dower, Ken Stickney, Jim Beam, Crystal Stevenson and Donna Price.

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