Note: The following op-ed appeared in the Ft. Wayne Journal Gazette on November 13, 2011.
The numbers are sobering.
Student loan debt in the United States is expected to exceed $750 billion for the first time this year. The amount of unpaid student debt has doubled in the past five years, and student loan debt in the U.S. now exceeds that on credit cards.
And the Project on Student Debt recently reported that it estimates two-thirds of bachelor’s degree graduates in 2010 borrowed to complete their education, with those students graduating with an average debt of more than $25,000.
Increasingly, new graduates are saddled with large loan obligations that cast a long shadow over their finances as they begin their careers.
As in any politically charged issue, however, hyperbole tends to carry the day. Stories of students graduating $50,000 or more in debt attract most of the attention, with universities shouldering much of the blame for raising tuition and fees. The reality is more complicated and the solutions more complex than the debate or coverage would indicate.
For example, often lost in the discussion is the fact that much of student borrowing is being used for purposes beyond a university’s control. At Indiana University, only 60 percent of the financial aid provided to our students goes to pay for direct educational expenses, with the rest being returned to the student to be used for off-campus housing and personal expenses.
The debt picture for our students also is brighter than that nationally. Graduating seniors in 2010 with student loans left IU with an average debt of $17,400. More promising is the fact that 59 percent of our undergraduates at IU Bloomington, our largest campus, have no educational-related debt.
Still, we recognize the need to do everything we can to help our students graduate with as little debt as possible, especially in this difficult economic climate. That work begins with keeping IU affordable for all students.
Resident undergraduate tuition rates across IU are among the lowest in the Big Ten, and the average net cost of attendance (all college-related expenses, minus scholarships and grants) is the lowest in the Big Ten. These affordable tuition levels are made possible, in part, by aggressive cost containment that has seen administrative costs fall from 10.1 percent of IU spending to 8.4 percent over the past four years.
Institutional aid (scholarships and grants) also has doubled in the last five years to nearly $115 million, and last month our trustees took another significant step toward lowering the debt burden on our undergraduates by reducing summer-session tuition for in-state students 25 percent starting next summer.
Despite our best efforts, many students will still need to borrow to attend IU. For those students and their parents, we offer a large suite of tools to help them manage their finances, starting as early as freshman orientation. Those efforts include financial literacy programs, online cash management tools and comprehensive loan counseling.
Our goal every step of the way is to ensure that students and their families make informed decisions when they elect to borrow and that they have the tools necessary to help them live within their means while at IU.
Universities must play a central role in ensuring that deserving young adults graduate with the knowledge and skills they need to compete in the 21st century global marketplace, unencumbered by debt to the greatest extent possible.
At Indiana University we have embraced that responsibility and remain committed to maintaining our position as a leading public research university where the concepts of earning a world-class education and affordability are not mutually exclusive.