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Recession Has Lit the Fuse on Explosive Student Debt

Originally posted on on August 24, 2011
by Bryce Covert, Assistant Editor at New Deal 2.0 

Troubling long-term trends have gotten even worse as schools, government, and families cut back and student loans skyrocket.

This week’s credit check: Average student debt can spiral up to $100,000 with interest and late payments. Room and board charges at colleges have doubled in actual dollars since 1982.

It’s no great secret that student loan debt is exploding. The total amount isset to top $1 trillion, more than total credit card debt. But accompanying that post-recession surge in student debt (as all other consumer debt is being paid down) is a surge in delinquencies. As The Wall Street Journal reports, “In the second quarter, 11.2% of student loans were more than 90 days past due and the rate was steadily rising, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Only credit cards had a higher rate of delinquency — 12.2% — but those numbers have been on a steady decline for the past four quarters.”

The rise in student borrowing is a longtime trend, but things have clearly gotten worse in the recession. A lot of it is because of decisions schools are making. In a recent Atlantic Monthly article, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus explain that higher tuition — paid for by student loans — “keeps most colleges going.” Private colleges Loyola University and Franklin Pierce see 77 and 85 percent of students enroll with loans, respectively. Historically black colleges, which tend to have lower endowments and a poorer population, are closer to 90 percent. Part of this, they report, is not because the actual education is more costly, but because “room and board charges have doubled in actual dollars since 1982 to enhance campus life.” That’s a long-term trend. But part of it is unique to the recession: As endowments tanked, priorities changed. They note:

Recent actions by Dartmouth and Williams, two wealthy schools, convey a lot about academic priorities. In the past, both schools announced that anyone they accepted would be able to enroll without having to take out loans. That is, the colleges would ensure all the aid that was needed to make attendance possible… That was before 2008. But when Dartmouth and Williams’ endowments tanked, hard decisions had to be made. Among the first was telling their needy students they would henceforward have to borrow.

The government has taken much the same tack in looking at its own shrunken budget post-recession. Back in March, President Obama proposed a budget that ended an experiment that gave Pell Grants for summer courses and eliminated a subsidy for paying interest on student loans for grad students. His plan was better than the GOP’s, which wanted to cut the maximum Pell Grant payment by $845, end funding to other aid programs, and kill AmeriCorps. This comes on top of a longtime trend in which student debt has come to replace grants. As Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren reminded his host Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC, “When we were in college, Melissa, Pell Grants paid almost half our college in the 90s. Now Pell Grants barely cover a quarter. It’s all student loans.” Grants used to cover two-thirds of financing an education; now two-thirds comes from loans. Post-recession, the government is looking to shrink that even more.

Families have also reacted to the recession by, understandably, socking less away for college and pitching in less for tuition. As Hacker and Dreifus note, “Fully two-thirds of our undergraduates have gone into debt, many from middle class families, who in the past paid for much of college from savings.” Those savings have likely dried up. A typical family spent only about $2,055 on education last year. Only half of freshmen entering college said their parents had put anything aside for their education, and of those who had, half had saved less than $20,000.

With so many sources of aid pulling away either out of necessity or stupidity, students are left hanging at just the time they need more help. The College Board puts average debt at $27,650, but that figure can spiral up to $100,000 due to interest and late payment penalties, which are even more likely in a recession. This is on top of the bleak job market graduating students face. The New York Times writes, “The median starting salary for students graduating from four-year colleges in 2009 and 2010 was $27,000, down from $30,000 for those who entered the work force in 2006 to 2008… Among the members of the class of 2010, just 56 percent had held at least one job by this spring, when the survey was conducted. That compares with 90 percent of graduates from the classes of 2006 and 2007.” It’s hard to pay student loans when you don’t have a job.

And don’t forget, this debt isn’t going anywhere, no matter how little students are able to pay it back. Unlike almost all other forms of consumer debt, student loans can’t be discharged. Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers told Hacker and Dreifus, “You will be hounded for life… They will garnish your wages. They will intercept your tax refunds. You become ineligible for federal employment.” They can also dock Social Security checks when you retire, he adds. No matter when the economy finally pulls out of this stagnation, students will still be saddled with a heavy load.

Bryce Covert is Assistant Editor at New Deal 2.0.