By Charlie Mitchell
High school seniors will soon be accepting their diplomas. They’ll be proud of themselves, as well they should be.
But there’s a trap for those who opt for more education.
Thousands upon thousands of young people are already in it – and may not be out until they have grandchildren of their own, if then.
The trap is student loan debt.
A lot of progressive legislation was passed by Congress in the mid-1960s. In the name of equalizing access to higher education, the federal government started working with private banks to guarantee loans to those who otherwise couldn’t afford to attend. Almost all banks started making student loans. There was no way for them to lose.
Usually, interest would add up until the borrower graduated or stopped going to school. Then a payment plan would last for a five- or 10-year period. In the early years, payments were $40 to $80 per month – amounts a young family could work into its budget.
Fast-forward to today and, as with many great ideas, the situation has spun out of control. There are many abuses, such as allowing scam schools to participate. The greatest problem is that the money is easy to get and little thought is given to the financial predicament being created.
President Barack Obama has tried to apply the brakes and provide some relief – but he may have merely made the trap more enticing.
Too many don’t understand how financing higher education works.
For families in poverty, there is the federal Pell Grant program. Young people living independently qualify, too. Pell money does not have to be repaid. It’s a gift from the taxpayers.
The Pell family income threshold has been $20,000 and will rise to $50,000. Pell amounts will also rise to almost $6,000 per year over the next six years.
That means a student who qualifies will be able to receive up to $24,000 free and clear while working toward a four-year bachelor’s degree.
Problem is, tuition, fees and living expenses during those four years may easily top $100,000 – even at a public university in Mississippi – so students and their families have increasingly been turning to student loans, which do have to be repaid.
Think of Ole Miss as a rich kids’ school?
One in five students there receives a Pell Grant and one in three is borrowing at an average rate of $4,400 per year.
Want confirmation that Alcorn and Valley State serve a less-wealthy clientel?
One in three Alcorn students is receiving Pell money and borrowing at a rate of $4,900 per year. Four out of five students at Valley are receiving Pell cash and borrowing at a rate of almost $6,000 per year.
College graduations are coming up, too. More than a few picking up university diplomas will not be as jubilant as their high school counterparts. Looming for them is $25,000 or more in debt as they start looking for employment.
On a 10-year plan, they’ll face notes of $300 or more per month until they’re in their 30s. That’s $300 to pay before a car note, rent, food, insurance or any other expense. Student loans are not canceled by filing bankruptcy. As many as half of all students leave college without a diploma, but still owe the money.
And, of course, many will owe much more. Private college and medical school graduates can be hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
Some borrowers today and into the future will meet the 10-year payback. Under the Obama changes, banks are out of the picture. Government will make and collect loans. Repayment may be capped at 10 percent of income – but interest will keep adding up. So a teacher or a police officer or any number of other professionals could be well into their 40s and still paying a college loan.
Looking back, it’s tempting to say we were better off 45 years ago when lower-income families scrimped and saved or their children didn’t go to college. That’s probably not true. Raising the average education level in the state is a good thing.
High school seniors have a lot to think about. Increasingly serious, due to the expense, is whether enrolling in a community college or university is what they want to do. Those who do enroll will be doing themselves a lifelong favor if they commit to paying as they go.
That’s a difficult commitment to make and a difficult commitment to keep, but consider the alternative: “Yes, Grandaddy wanted to take you to the movies and McDonald’s – but the money ran out when he paid his student loan.” Or, worse, “Yes ma’am I’m calling to see if I can just have my student loan payment deducted from my Social Security check.”
Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail cmitchell@vicksburg post.com.