Student loans and college costs: Is anyone listening?


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Nationally, 70.1 percent of 2009 high-school graduates enrolled in college, a continuing upward trend. The fall 2010 enrollment numbers echo this trend with Iowa State University reporting an all-time high of 28,682 students enrolled and a freshman class of 4,552, the second largest ever.

Community colleges reported enrolling more than 106,000 students. These students must, somehow, pay for college — from savings, work, scholarships and grants, or loans. Unfortunately, Iowa students rely heavily on loans and are being devoured by debt.

The Project on Student Debt reported that average debt for undergraduate degrees in 2008 was $23,200, increasing 6 percent a year. Sixty-seven percent of graduates had loans to repay. Iowa students had the highest student-loan debt in the nation, an average of $28,174. This year, the Iowa average is now $28,883, and 74 percent have loans — second in the nation. Of the three regent schools, graduates of Iowa State have the most debt on average, at $30,411, with 71 percent carrying loans.

The “fiscal 2008 Official Cohort Default Rates,” published in September by the U.S. Department of Education, shows that, as of 2010, Iowa was one of only 17 states with more than 75,000 borrowers in repayment, 80,622. Of these, 8,053 were in default, a rate of 9.9 percent. This ranks fourth, behind Arizona, Arkansas, and Colorado — all with default rates of more than 10 percent. Nationwide, 7 percent of borrowers are in default.

Students graduating from Iowa colleges and universities have more debt than most, and more are defaulting. Yet the presidents of the public universities and the state Board of Regents has increased tuition significantly. The regents voted March 23 to approve overall in-state resident undergraduate tuition increases of 5 percent at the University of Iowa, Iowa State, and Northern Iowa. For technical and specialty degrees, the increases are even larger. Sophomore engineering students at the UI will see a 21.3 percent tuition increase, to $7,436 — from the $6,128 they and their parents thought they were paying originally. Most egregious of all, UI freshman nursing students will see a 41.4 percent increase, to $8,662.

In contrast, the Higher Education Price Index, a compilation of costs affecting higher education, rose less than 1 percent in 2010. This was the lowest increase ever for the index, which includes staff salaries, benefits, and energy costs. Colleges use the Higher Education Price Index to help evaluate their tuition rates — yet apparently not the regents, as the proposed increases for 2011-12 are significantly higher. They and the presidents of the regent universities argue that because of state funding cuts, large increases are needed to maintain an “effective and high-quality” program.

“Squeeze Play 2010,” a report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, states that 54 percent of Americans believe “colleges could spend less and still maintain a high quality of education.” Sixty percent believe that colleges can increase enrollments without raising tuition or cutting quality. People are “frustrated with higher education” and are “dubious” that colleges are “cost-effective and doing all they can to keep tuition affordable.” One imagines that business, engineering, and nursing students will agree. Are the regentslistening?

Deborah Thornton is a research analyst for the Public Interest Institute, a Mount Pleasant-based nonprofit research group. These views are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Public Interest Institute.

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