Today student loan debt seems as abundant as back-to-school supplies

By Mark Pattison Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — In a seemingly more innocent age, the back-to-school supply rush meant getting new pencils, pens, paper, construction paper, binders, folders, a Duo-Tang binder or two, plus a compass and the ever-popular protractor.

Then came the calculator. And the bulkier textbooks. And the laptops. And the backpacks to cram everything in.

Today, what may be heavier than that crammed pack is the debt burden incurred by a college student just to continue his or her education.

With the heightened sense that only a college degree will gain a young worker entree to the current world of work, more students than ever — thanks also in part to the demographics of the baby “boomlet” — are attending college. But with states reining in higher-education funding, state-supported colleges and universities have had to hike their tuition rates substantially.

Catholic colleges and universities, which don’t have the government funding supports public institutions still have to hold down tuition costs, must charge higher rates. DePaul University in Chicago will charge $24,300 this school year for a full load of classes. Even students getting financial aid, such as grants and work-study programs, can find it necessary to take out student loans to help fund their education.

It used to be customary for students in law school or medical school to get loans to pay for their education, but those professions offered graduates a better chance at immediate big-figure paydays to enable them to pay back a loan. Graduate students could often get work as teaching assistants while they pursued their studies to defray the cost of their education.

But when undergraduate students take the risk of locking themselves into debt before the start of their careers and then venture into an uncertain economy after they graduate, problems with paying back the loans can mount.

Student loan programs themselves have had problems. Over the spring and summer, several schools learned that their financial aid officers had developed too-cozy relationships with lenders — getting stock options and other under-the-table perks — and had steered students toward those lenders, regardless of the interest rate or repayment terms. Even a federal Department of Education official was linked to such a steering scheme.

At DePaul, about 70 percent of undergraduates receive some form of financial aid, according to Chris Rona, DePaul’s associate director of financial aid for new student programs and outreach. That figure is roughly consistent with the percentage for all colleges, he added.

Rona said his guess was that half of all college students get “loan assistance.”

“The lenders are always obviously trying to extend their markets” to find more people who need to borrow money, he told Catholic News Service.

As an example of the debt load a student can have, take Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich. More than 50 percent of all seniors owe money on Stafford loans, one of the two major federal student loan programs. Ten percent owe up to $9,999, 21 percent owe $10,000-$19,999, 15 percent owe $20,000-$29,999, and 8 percent owe $30,000 and up. This indebtedness, according to the university, does not include any private loans taken out by students.

In the 2005-06 school year, total federal financial aid amounted to $94 billion, up 95 percent since 1995-96. That amount included student loans worth $68.5 billion, grants of $18.6 billion, tax credit and deductions of $6 billion, and work-study programs accounting for $1 billion.

The Department of Education said $28.8 billion each was spent on Stafford subsidized and unsubsidized loans, while another $9.7 billion were allocated for another loan program.

A subsidized loan, awarded according to financial need, means the government pays — or subsidizes — interest on the loan while the student is in school and for the first six months after graduation. If they qualify, students also can have payments deferred. Those with unsubsidized loans must pay interest from the time they get the loan until it is paid off.

Nonfederal loans accounted for another $17.3 billion in student debt, according to America’s Student Loan Providers, an industry group.

“We’re monitoring the loan lender issue very closely. To the best of our knowledge, we don’t believe that Catholic institutions or Jesuit (institutions’) students are more at risk,” said Melissa DeLeonardo, a spokeswoman for the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities.

“Because our institutions are working in the best interests of our students. they have formed relationships with lenders,” she added in an interview with CNS. “We work with institutions that give the best rate possible. We feel pretty confident that we’ve done a good job with our relationships with the lenders, and we feel that our students are not more at risk at our Jesuit institutions.”

Federal loans have been made available at far more attractive interest rates than private loans. Private student loans have higher rates, and borrowers don’t enjoy the same protections as with federal student loans. If loans are consolidated, the interest rate may be based on an individual’s credit, and that can be a volatile rate as well. But federal law says you can consolidate federal student loans only once.

Students may be worrying about grades in the year ahead, but worries at colleges won’t be limited to students, as universities deal with student loan problems.

Said DePaul’s Rona: “This has really rocked the culture of our business this summer.”

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