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Overwhelmingly high student debt proves significant campaign issue

Published: Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, October 9, 2012 07:10

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MCT

Higher education costs and resulting increases in student loan debt prove to be a heavy burden on students across the country.


 

For many students, the beginning of each academic year brings more than just new classes, new professors and new living spaces. It also adds the weight of tens of thousands of dollars in student debt. Student loans are a crucial tool in the face of huge and rising tuition prices, but the inevitable outcome — substantial debt — creates a crippling financial burden on large numbers of young people.

According to a March statement by the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, total outstanding student loan debt has reached one trillion dollars, topping most other forms of consumer debt. As college tuition costs continue to increase and the economy remains unstable, more students take out loans, on which they subsequently default. According to the Federal Reserve Board of New York, of the 37 million student borrowers nationwide with outstanding debt, more than 15 percent have at least one loan account that is past due.

Tufts students are not exempt from this trend. Tufts does not offer need-blind admissions, meaning that admissions officers are aware of the number of prospective students seeking financial aid to an institution whose tuition and fees have inched up over the years.

  Tufts’ total cost for the 2012-2013 academic year sits at over $56,000, placing it among the country’s priciest universities. According to Director of Financial Aid Patricia Reilly, close to 40 percent of Tufts students graduate with some form of student loan debt. The average total debt from both Tufts and federal loans and grants amounts to nearly $17,000, Reilly said.

Junior Walker Bristol sees the tangible effects of those statistics.

“Personally, I’m really fortunate [because] I won’t have extraordinary debt when I graduate,” he said. “But I have some friends who will [graduate with] enormous debt.”

Senior Benjamin Serrano receives financial aid in the form of loans and grants from the federal government, as well as loans from Tufts.

“I need financial aid to attend Tufts,” Serrano said. “I wouldn’t be able to go here otherwise.”

Student loans can be broken down into three broad categories: federally guaranteed loans distributed through banks and other lenders, federal loans distributed directly by the government (Stafford loans) and private loans. The government also distributes grants, known as Pell grants, to low-income students.

 

In 2009, the Obama administration pushed the House of Representatives to pass legislation that would increase federal direct loans and cut out banks as the middlemen for lending.

Professor of Political Science Kent Portney said that despite encouraging measures like these and talk from both Democrats and Republicans about making college affordable and easing student debt, the fundamental problems remain unresolved.

“I think the rhetoric that you hear coming out of Washington far outstrips anything that’s being done,” he said. “Nobody that I’ve heard in Washington has come to grips with the fact that it’s a very expensive thing to provide higher education.”

According to Portney, the federal government has two options for lowering college costs: subsidize them further, which would add to the already enormous federal deficit, or cut college programs. Neither of these choices seems feasible, he said.

“If you want your tuition to be lower at Tufts, it can be lower, but then you’ll have to cut departments, you’ll have to cut faculty, you’ll get a lesser education,” Portney said. “I’ve been on various budget committees at Tufts

 and there’s not a lot of fat on the Tufts budget, it’s a very lean budget.”

During his term, President Barack Obama has made several  changes to help students with their loans and debt. According to his official website, these include the Income Based Repayment (IRB) plan, which lets students cap their required monthly loan payments at 10 percent of their income, and Public Service Loan Repayment, which forgives all student loans within ten years for those working in public service fields.

Portney explained that Obama’s apparent commitment to easing the burden of student debt, as well as the pre-existing tendency for younger voters to vote Democratic, could work to his advantage in next month’s election.

“I think it’s pretty clear that the Obama campaign has tried to mobilize young people, college students, around issues of financing higher education because it’s such a salient issue for so many people,” he said. “Almost from the day he took office, he tried to make sure that this was his issue, that he would own this issue.”

Bristol agreed that student loans have increasingly become a decisive campaign issue for many students.

“The student vote goes naturally to the left, but as students grow more and more disillusioned with they way things are, there are people who are voting based on student loans,” he said.

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