The Other Debt Crisis

This op-ed was written by members of the National Campaign for Political and Civic Engagement, a consortium of over twenty colleges including Allegheny College.  Hanna Hebert (Allegheny College), Sietse Goffard (Harvard University), Gavin Sullivan (Harvard University), Kira Kaur (Rutgers University), Catherine Benavidez (University of Texas at Austin), and Laura Silliman (Vanderbilt University) contributed to this article.

For millions of high school seniors across the country, navigating the college admissions maze proves challenging enough.  An acceptance into their dream university, however, can unravel a larger obstacle: funding a four-year education.

Catherine Benavidez has encountered these challenges first-hand at the University of Texas at Austin. She is president of an on-campus organization and a student government representative, works two jobs, serves as an undergraduate research assistant, and is currently pursuing an independent project.

In some regards, Benavidez is lucky.  Although her parents are unable to fund her education, she has been awarded $25,000 in scholarships and financial aid from the State of Texas and her university.  Like many students, however, this assistance does not go far enough: a variety of expenses—from books to housing to school materials—have pushed her to take out student loans.

She joins the majority of American college students who graduate with debt.  According to American Student Assistance, a nonprofit seeking student loan solutions, roughly 60 percent of students borrow to help cover the cost of school.  The average individual who has taken out student loans owes over $24,000, with one in ten borrowers owing more than $54,000.  Combined with dismal employment prospects post-graduation, this debt can burden young professionals long into their careers.

The United States is virtually alone in its staggering tuition costs.  The College Board reports that average tuition, room and board for the 2013-14 academic year has reached $40,917 at private institutions and $18,391 for public institutions. Meanwhile our international peers provide far more affordable options.  Many European governments, for example, heavily subsidize educational costs, enabling their students to graduate debt-free. At Trinity College Dublin, annual tuition for European Union residents rests under €10,000 for the university’s most expensive degree programs.  Low income students can receive aid to further reduce this amount.

Our northern neighbors also enjoy lower tuition costs.  Independent educational systems exist within each Canadian province, functioning similarly to public institutions in the United States. Annual tuition at the country’s colleges and universities ranges from CAD$5,500 to CAD$26,000.  Generous tax incentives and grants, however, reduce the need for student loans. Interest free financing, interest relief, debt reduction in repayment, and revision of loan terms are available to assist students with debt.

Making college as affordable as it is in some other countries is no easy task and would likely require significant government expenditures.  The United States faces serious debt itself: the expansion of federal tuition assistance could add yet another burden to our budget.

Likewise, greater college accessibility might be responsibly achieved by reordering our spending priorities.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the federal government allocated approximately 19 percent of spending, or $689 billion, to domestic and international defense efforts in fiscal year 2012. Another 22 percent, or $773 billion, was spent on funding Social Security.  Meanwhile, primary-, secondary-, and postsecondary-education received a meager 2 percent of total federal spending.  If the federal government were to direct an additional 0.1 percent of its spending to help college students, it would unlock $3.5 billion in financial aid.

To encourage federal action on student debt, college students must vocalize their concerns at the voting booth. Young adults can do better in this regard.  According to U.S. Census Bureau data of the November 2012 elections, voter turnout for citizens 18 to 24 years old lagged nearly 30 percent behind turnout among citizens 55 to 64 years old.  Until we rectify this disparity, America’s student debt crisis will likely not receive the attention it deserves, even as it quietly intensifies day by day.