Student debt burden grows nationally
The average student debt at USF after four years is $22,557, and Javaris Herndon, a junior majoring in biomedical sciences and public health, said his is already nearing $15,000 in his junior year. He said he only expects his debt to increase in his senior year at USF, and then even more once he enrolls in graduate school.
Herndon is one of many students who contribute to the university’s total student debt of more than $250 million.
“I think it’s a major problem and speaks a lot about our education system,” Herndon said.
As the amount of total student loans in the country soars to more than $1 trillion, and the interest rates on federal student loans is scheduled to double as of July 1, students across the country face the expanding problems ofstudent debt.
Herndon said his debt problems started after his freshman year, when he said he received several grants and scholarships in addition to his Bright Futures scholarship.
At that point, he said he only thought of loans as a last resort. However, once sophomore year started, he said he didn’t receive nearly enough funding as he did the previous year.
“It’s scary at first,” Herndon said. “After a point, you worry, but you say you have to take out the loan, because what else are you going to do?”
Herndon said the benefit of an education outweighs the cost of piling student loans, but he said not every student feels the same way. Some of his friends didn’t want the debt and either dropped out of school or returned home to attend community college, something he said he has considered doing.
“Our education system has turned into a business rather than being about our education,” he said. “In other countries, the government pays for education, but not here. That’s the last thing that should be cut and we are consistently seeing it shortened.”
A recent survey conducted by Young Invincibles, a national student advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., found that almost half of the 9,500 participating students said they put off buying a house, buying a car, or start- ing a family because of student debt.
Jen Mishory, deputy director of Young Invincibles, said she helped conduct the survey, which found that 15 percent of participants have been denied a mortgage and 21 percent have been denied an auto loan because of their student debt.
“The cost of college has gone up significantly,” Mishory said. “It is about three times more expensive to go to a public school now than it was in 1980.”
According to Billie Jo Hamilton, director for the Office of Financial Aid at USF, 57 percent of the students in the USF System in the 2011-12 academic year used borrowed money to pay for their education, totaling more than $250 million in federal student loans and about $10 million more in private loans.
The problem of student debt, Hamilton said, can be connected to the trend of increasing student tuition each year and a downhill economy — something her office has heard again and again from students and families trying to fund their education.
“You have a combination of those two things coming together, which has caused families to have to borrow more money,” she said.
Ken Souza, an adjunct professor in the College of Business, teaches a personal finance course each semester that instructs students on financial planning. Souza said the increasing trend of nation-wide student debt is something he has seen in various financial publications and reports.
“You’ll definitely see the American household is trimming back on their debts, like credit cards and mortgages and other big purchases, but you’ll see student loan debt is one of the few financing and debt items that has expanded over the last couple of years,” he said.
Souza said the problem of student debt is finally starting to get some notice because of the economic impact of students no longer purchasing the homes and other big purchases they normally would after graduation.
“Home-buying drives the economy, and homeownership is an economic driver and when such a huge portion of the population has to put off that type of purchase, it is definitely problematic,” Souza said.
While he says financing can help students cover the cost of college tuition, and even much of the cost of living in many cases, Souza said the debt could pile up due to the accumulation of several years of interest.
“After graduation, you sit back and look at the debt that has been accumulated and the fact you have a pretty hefty bill to pay for the next 15 to 20 years of your life,” he said.
Hamilton, who said the average debt for a USF Tampa student after four years is $22,623, said one definitive factor of student debt is the time put in to a degree. She said the faster a student graduates, the less debt a student has, saving a significant amount of debt.
“What some students don’t realize about going to college is not tuition, it’s living expenses,” she said. “That’s why we need to get students to progress.”
It is this cost of living, Hamilton said, that was one of the reasons why the university started the “Take 15” campaign, urging students to take 15 credits each semester. She said that by dropping courses, and not focusing on necessary courses for their degree, students often worsen their financial situation.
“The financial situation with students borrowing and taking on this debt has to do with academic decisions they make,” Hamilton said. “For every semester you extend your graduation, it’s $10,000 between room and board and tuition. If you go an extra year, its $20,000, plus you have for- gone a salary.”
Hamilton also said the university is working to develop programs for students to better their understanding of financing their student loans. In addition to providing exit counseling for last semester’s graduates, Hamilton said the Office of Financial Aid and the Office of Student Success are working to create a peer- led financial literacy program, which will open this fall.
“The provost and the president felt really strongly that students need to learn financial literacy and understand their finances,” she said. “The better we can educate students on that, maybe they can hopefully borrow less or at least be able to manage it when they get out.”
While Hamilton recommends the many repayment options for student loans, such as unemployment deferment or income-based repayment options, Souza advises students to carefully create a financial plan and stick to it.
“You’ve got to create a personal budget and that student loan payment is a bill you must pay,” he said. “… If you end up falling behind on something like student loans, it can be catastrophic to your credit score. It could impair your ability to buy a car or mort- gage later on.”
Hamilton said she spoke with representatives from large universities during a con- ference last week — and all brought up the subject.
Regardless of the future financial forecast, Herndon said he knows he will have to work while earning his education, planning on possibly balancing a full-time job while finishing graduate school.
“I want to be optimistic, but the current trends show it will be either get worse or stay the same,” Herndon said. “Student debt may reach sky high … with people paying back student loans for half their life. Honestly, where is the incentive in that?”