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College student loans: Debt rises as free college tuition plans spread

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 9/19/2019 Chris Quintana, USA TODAY
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About 2 in 3 graduates from the class of 2018 graduated a little deeper in debt than the classes before them. The average bachelor's degree holder owes about $29,200 in student loan debt — a record high in the U.S

That is about a 2% increase from the class of 2017, whose members graduated with an average debt of $28,500, according to a newly released report by the Institute for College Access and Success. 

There is some good news. The growth of student loan debt has slowed, but the institute, which monitors student debt, said college affordability remains an “urgent concern.” 

"Millions of students continue to struggle with their debts," said the group's executive vice president, Debbie Cochrane. She credited states' investments in public colleges with the slower growth in debt loads.

The conversation surrounding the nation’s $1.6 trillion of student loan debt has never been louder. Democratic presidential hopefuls, including U.S. senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, have proposed sweeping plans that would eliminate billions in student loan debt while greatly reducing the price of college.

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At the same time, a few state schools have tried introducing new aid programs meant to ease burden for low and middle-income students, including the University of Michigan and University of Virginia. New York offers free tuition to residents who earn up to $125,000, and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham recently proposed a free tuition plan for any state resident who attends a public institution, regardless of income. 

Critics of such plans say a bachelor's degree generally results in higher lifetime earnings for students, and roughly $30,000 in debt may be a reasonable price to pay for the greater earning power it brings. Moreover, they say money spent on free college might be better spent elsewhere, such as on health care. 

The Institute for College Success and Access collected data from about half of all public and private, not-for-profit universities for its report, and it says the figures represent more than 70% of all graduates. (For-profit colleges were not included because "virtually no for-profit colleges report what their graduates owe.")

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The debt loads vary heavily by region. Borrowers who attended college in the Northeast had the highest average debt, whereas those in the West graduated with the lowest. Connecticut had the highest average, $38,650, and Utah had the lowest at $19,750. Black students and those from low-income backgrounds were more likely to have debt at graduation, the report said.  

About 17% of the debt comes from private student loans, which generally have higher interest rates and fewer protections than those issued by the federal government.

To reduce student debt loads, the institute offered numerous suggestions, including: 

  • Colleges should ensure they're clear about how much it will cost to attend.
  • States should invest more in higher education. 
  • Congress should double the Pell Grant, a scholarship given to low-income students 

If the current method of paying for higher education remains the same, average student debt is likely to continue to rise. That’s according to Mark Hueslman, an associate director at Demos, a left-leaning think tank, who studies student debt.  

The slowed growth, he said, might be thanks to some families' abilities to pay for college after rebuilding some of their wealth after the recession. Unemployment is also low, which means people have jobs to help pay off their loans. 

Just a few decades ago, it was unusual to graduate with a lot of debt. The growth in debt loads is especially troubling, he said, given how diverse the current crop of college students is compared to the predominately white classes of the past. 

“We have depressed ourselves into a mindset in which $30,000 in debt is acceptable for a degree,” Hueslman said.

Jason Delisle, a fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said he doesn’t expect that figure to change substantially, even with the introduction of increased financial aid at public colleges. 

Students, he said, often use the loan money to help cover living expenses and other costs associated with college. Additionally, many students use federal loans to pay for private colleges, which are unlikely to be affected by free college plans.

“There’s still a lot of demand for loans that are a really good deal,” thanks to low interest rates, Delisle said. 

Monthly payments can be rather affordable, too, depending on the repayment option each borrower chooses. A typical borrower earning $35,000 and paying back a $29,200 federal loan could pay anywhere from $310 to $136 a month over 10 to 16 years, according to the federal government repayment calculator.

Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College student loans: Debt rises as free college tuition plans spread

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