Student loan debt nears $1 trillion

By the end of this year, the U.S. will reach a milestone when the total amount of student loan debt is projected to top $1 trillion, according to Forbes,

Yet, even with this massive statistic looming over the heads of students and their parents, USF students still have a lower amount of debt than most of their peers across the nation.

Last year saw a frenzy of reports about the total amount of student loan debt surpassing credit card debt. According to June 2010 figures from the Federal Reserve, Americans owed $826.5 billion in credit card debt while outstanding student loans in August 2010, both federal and private, totaled $830 billion.

The Project on Student Debt estimates that students who graduated in 2009 carry an average of $24,000 in loan debt. However, even though the national debt has increased since 2009, USF students graduated in the spring with an average loan debt per person of $21,784, USF Director of Financial Aid Billie Jo Hamilton said.

From the 2008-09 fiscal year through 2009-10, student loans at USF increased by 17.7 percent, Hamilton said. However, there was only a 2 percent increase from the 2009-10 fiscal year through 2010-11. For the 2010-2011 fiscal year, Hamilton said students borrowed more than $240.5 million.

According to the USF financial aid website, undergraduate dependent students, who make up 75.8 percent of the student body, can take out a total of $31,000 in loans, $23,000 of which can be subsidized.

“I think that’s why you see the average debt hover around $21,000 because that’s around the cap,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said she lived in Illinois three years ago, where university tuition was about $9,000 a year. However, USF’s current tuition is only $5,700 a year.

“(Tuition has increased) 15 percent for the past three years, every year” Hamilton said. “It’s been going up a lot, but it’s still a bargain.”

Last week, The College Board ranked Florida No. 45 in the nation in tuition costs, meaning it is among the lowest in the U.S. Last year, however, Florida was ranked No. 48. The increase is a result of 15 percent tuition increases across the state.

“In Florida, there’s not as much tax revenue,” Hamilton said. “The legislature is cutting back funding, (and) the only way we can get money to support the university, besides state funding, is students. It’s kind of like a vicious circle that started when the economy started going bad.”

Undergraduate tuition per credit hour for the current school year at USF is $191.06, whereas in 2008-09 it was $123.59 per credit hour.

Hamilton said she understands that, for some, taking out student loans is the only path to a college degree.

To help balance expenses and prevent future debt from accruing, Hamilton said students living on campus should take advantage of meal plans as much as possible and avoid eating out. Students should also take advantage of the free events on campus for entertainment.

“I always tell students and parents, ‘If you use a student loan to pay for a pizza, you’re paying that off over 10 years,'” she said.

Another solution to ease student debt may be President Barack Obama’s “Know Before You Owe” plan, which was announced last week. The plan would go into effect in 2012 and allow some college graduates to limit federal student loan repayments to 10 percent of their discretionary income, as opposed to the current 15 percent.

An accelerated “Pay As You Earn” option could benefit up to 1.6 million low-income borrowers and reduce their payments by as much as a couple hundred dollars per month. Another part of the plan would forgive all remaining debt on federal loans after 20 years, five years earlier than the current law allows.

“If they had an opportunity to pay a lower amount based on their income at the time they graduate and then slowly, as their income improves, that would give them an opportunity to keep their loans in good standing, pay less of their income out towards student loans and increase payments as their income increases,” Hamilton said. “(The initiative) gives them a little bit more financial relief, at least initially, while they’re getting their career started.”