Photo: Students protesting the inflated student loan debt, which climbed to $1 trillion in 2012
by Mary Ellen Flannery
A few weeks ago, air temperatures in Glendale, Ariz., hit a sizzling 118 degrees, which means you probably could have fried bacon on the front seat of Amber and Steven Gould’s 21-year-old truck with no air-conditioning.
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Fixing the AC “would cost about $700,” said Amber Gould, a high school English teacher and 2010 Arizona State University graduate. And since she and her husband—“of course, I married another teacher!”—need to direct their two new-teacher salaries to cover monthly student-loan payments of about $350, the young couple is stuck on the hot seat.
Countless Americans just like Gould are struggling to pay (or pay back) the costs of college. Since 2008, tuition at four-year institutions has increased 27 percent overall. (Not coincidentally, during the same time period, state funding to institutions sank by 28 percent.) Last year, new college graduates owed a crushing $27,000 each, on average. At those levels, debt isn’t just a burden—it’s a barrier to millions of Americans seeking degrees and careers.
Unfortunately, it’s only going to get worse—unless Congress acts. On July 1, interest rates on some new federal loans for low-income college students doubled from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent—an additional cost of about $1,000 per loan for those students who can afford it least. NEA members must continue to press Congress to return to the lower interest rate, at least for another year. During that year of reprieve, lawmakers could (and should) consider long-term solutions to the specific issues of interest rates and the larger issue of college affordability.
If they care about the economic health of this country, it’s an issue they simply can’t ignore. By 2018, the United States will need 22 million more college-educated workers to meet the needs of its increasingly high-tech professional work forces—and it likely will fall short by 3 million, according to a recent Georgetown University analysis of the nation’s workforce.
Long-term solutions advocated by NEA would include increasing need-based student aid, such as the federal Pell Grant program, which currently doesn’t cover even 40 percent of college costs; lowering student loan interest rates; further limiting the percentage of income that borrowers can repay on monthly payments; and restoring full funding of higher education.
“We’ve got to make sure that college doesn’t become something that only a few can afford,” says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.
Does Congress understand this? Seems not. Last week, a common-sense bill offered by Senate Democrats Tom Harkin (IA), Jack Reed (RI), and Elizabeth Warren (MA), which would restore the 3.4 interest rate on subsidized Stafford loans for another year and provide time for long-term strategizing, failed to clear a procedural hurdle. By a vote of 51 to 49, sadly short of the 60 votes necessary to advance the bill, this pro-student solution was stalled—and the needs of low-income college students ignored.
Other bills out there, specifically those that would link student loan interest rates to market rates without a cap on how sky-high they eventually could go, are dangerous to students, Warren warned.
In the meantime, college students and young educators like Amber Gould are sweating it out (literally). Gould, a former NEA Student Program leader who is entering her third year of teaching this fall, was admitted to Arizona State on a “full ride” scholarship. Unfortunately, no state in the country has raised four-year tuition rates as rapidly as Arizona—78.4 percent over the past five years—and Gould’s scholarship didn’t cover those increases, or the cost of housing and food.
She borrowed about $20,000—“just to live!” And she watched every penny of it. She lived with roommates, worked more than 20 hours a week at two jobs, and reluctantly forewent the expense of health insurance. She simply couldn’t afford to get ill.
Now she can’t afford to get better. Gould hopes to earn a master’s degree in education, to further develop her professional expertise and her ability to help and reach students, but she said, “One of the biggest issues is affordability, especially since I will have to take out more loans.” Meanwhile, she looks at her own students in her Title 1 classroom and wonders what future they face.
“Almost all of my students will have to take out loans in order to attend any type of post-secondary education, which is a concern, not only for the students, but for the parents who typically co-sign those loans.”