For too many students, a college education that is supposed to create opportunities can also mean years of struggle to pay off tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Schools must be required to do more to educate students about the real cost of their education and about a complex borrowing process that even the most sophisticated people have trouble understanding.
An article in The Times last week described the experience of 23-year-old Kelsey Griffith. She currently earns a meager wage as a restaurant worker and owes $120,000 in student loans for an undergraduate degree from Ohio Northern University, a college whose recent graduates are among the most indebted in the country.
Nationally, about two-thirds of bachelor’s degree recipients now borrow from either public or private lenders, up significantly from the early ’90s, when about 45 percent of graduates borrowed from all sources, including family. According to an analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the average debt for student borrowers last year was about $23,300, while 10 percent owed more than $54,000 and 3 percent owed more than $100,000.
Ms. Griffith’s debt was worsened by the fact that she changed majors and took five years to graduate. And because federal loans did not cover her total costs, she had to take out more expensive private loans that offer fewer protections than federal loans — like deferments and income-based repayment plans. Ms. Griffith voiced an increasingly common sentiment when she told The Times: “I knew a private school would cost a lot of money. But, when I graduate, I’m going to owe like $900 a month. No one told me that.”
Federal law requires schools to provide students minimal “entry” and “exit” loan counseling. Melanie K. Weaver, the director of financial aid at Ohio Northern, told The Times in an e-mail message that parents and students needed to monitor debt, adding, “it is difficult for our office of 10 staff members to stay on top of every student.”
That answer is unacceptable.
Many schools market themselves to students without explaining the real costs of attendance. Letters informing them about financial aid awards often blur the distinction between loans and grants to make the school look like a better deal than it is. And once students enroll, they are generally left on their own as they borrow year after year.
The Obama administration has taken some important steps to address these problems. A proposal would require colleges to clearly disclose costs in a standardized “shopping sheet” that would let students see the aid they are receiving and the debt that they would incur. Later this year, it plans to post an Internet “scorecard” that rates each college nationally on affordability and value — defined by graduation rates and whether graduates earn enough on average to repay their debts.
A bill pending in the Senate would require both colleges and lenders to educate students about the differences between federal loans and riskier, more expensive private loans — and their borrowing options. Congress should also require schools to provide in-depth, annual loan counseling to students and set criteria for the information that must be provided. All schools should be required to disclose annually the average debt load of their graduates.
Before students borrow to pay for their education, they need to understand the obligations they are taking on, and how long it will take to pay them off.