College students face increasing debt
by Patrick McCreless
pmccreless@annistonstar.com
Apr 26, 2013 | 8484 views |  0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Graduation ceremonies at Jacksonville State University Friday night. (Photo by Shannon Tucker / The Anniston Star)
Graduation ceremonies at Jacksonville State University Friday night. (Photo by Shannon Tucker / The Anniston Star)
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JACKSONVILLE — Randall Nunn left the Jacksonville State University campus Friday evening with a newly earned bachelor's degree in psychology.

He also left with thousands of dollars in debt.

"My main concern is paying back my loans," said Nunn, of Woodland. "That's definitely been on my mind."

Nunn and 576 of his fellow undergraduates earned their diplomas from JSU on Friday. Based on averages from the federal College Affordability and Transparency Center, those students owe in aggregate a total of about about $25.56 million to lenders for their education.

Student debt has increased steadily across the country in the last decade, topping $1 trillion for the first time last year, according to education financing experts. Meanwhile, federal student aid loans will face cuts for the foreseeable future, a troublesome combination that could stagnate the economy and highlights the importance of saving for college, experts say.

The cuts

Megan McClean, director of policy in federal relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said the federal budget cuts known as sequestration, which began March 1, will impact federal aid programs starting with the 2013-14 school year. More cuts are scheduled over the next 10 years if Congress makes no changes.

McClean said for the upcoming school year, there will be a 5 percent cut in funding for the federal work study program and the federal supplemental educational opportunity grant. The work study program provides funds for part-time employment in various college departments for low-income students. The opportunity grant provides funding for such students.

Another financial aid program, the teacher education assistance for college and higher education grant, will face a 12.6 percent cut, McClean said. Also, origination fees for direct federal student loans will increase slightly by 1 percent.

Still, though the cuts are across the board for the various programs, they will not impact all colleges equally, McClean said.

"It will be different for each institution because every institution gets a different amount," McClean said of federal aid. "There are some schools that won't be impacted much and some schools that received pretty significant cuts."

Stephanie Miller, assistant director of student financial services at JSU, said most students will see little impact from the budget cuts in the upcoming school year.

"We are not really losing much of anything," Miller said. "We were very fortunate."

About 85 percent of JSU's student population uses some type of financial aid, Miller said. Funding for JSU students in the federal work study program in the next school year will remain steady, she said. The opportunity grant will be cut by 9 percent at JSU, meaning 25 fewer students will receive that aid, Miller said.

Miller added that the budget cuts will not impact Pell grants, at least not for this coming school year. Federal Pell grants provide financial aid for low-income students.

"The maximum Pell grant a student can earn in a year actually went up by $95," Miller said.

However, after 2013-2014 school year, Pell grants will lose their exemption and be subject to cuts like the other federal financial aid programs.

"Right now we do not know what those cuts will be," Miller said.

Nunn said he received about $20,000 in Pell grants for his four years in college and also had to take out another federally backed loan worth several thousand dollars for his final year. He did, however, also receive several music scholarships.

"I knew college would be fairly expensive when I started but I didn't know it would cost as much as it has," Nunn said.

Nunn plans to soon enter graduate school, which will keep him from having to pay back his current loans for a few more years, but will only add to his financial burden.

Rising costs

Anne Johnson, director of campus progress for the Center for American Progress, a Washington D.C.-based nonpartisan educational public policy research and advocacy organization, said the cost of college has increased considerably in the last decade, hitting $1.1 trillion nationally last year.

"That's larger than the total national credit card debt," Johnson said.

According to a study from the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center, a New York-based education policy advocacy center, the cost of tuition and fees in Alabama increased 62.9 percent in the previous five years. The study also shows that on the national level, American family borrowing for college has increased 36 percent per student in the last 10 years.

Of the country's total student loan debt, 33.9 percent is held by people under 30 years old, Johnson said. She said Americans between 30 and 39 years old hold another 33 percent of the debt while 40 through 49 year olds have 16.4 percent of the debt. Americans more than 50 years old have the rest of the student loan debt, she said.

The rising debt, which is due to a combination of factors including skyrocketing tuition, increasing demand and shrinking federal aid, has started impacting the economy. and the recent budget cuts will only make things worse, Johnson said.

"We're seeing deferred purchases of homes and cars," Johnson said. "We're just starting to see the ripple effect of student debt in the national economy."

Figures from the Center for American Progress also show that about 2 million more adults between 18 and 34 years old live in a household headed by their parents than before the 2008 recession.

Saving

Johnson said Pell grants must be protected to ensure more people can attend college but also that parents should start saving more to help their children as costs continue to rise.

"Certainly saving for kids is critically important," she said.

Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid planner and founder of finaid.org, a free source of student financial aid information, advice and tools, said saving for college is more important than ever.

"There isn't much funding available other than money from the federal and state governments and the colleges, but all of these sources are getting tighter," Kantrowitz said. Scholarships are increasing but not enough to make up the difference, so families must rely on their own resources, such as income and loans ... but it is cheaper to save than to borrow."

Kantrowitz said that for every dollar a person borrows, it will cost about $2 by the time he or she repays the debt, so families should start saving as soon as possible.

"If they start saving from birth, about a third of the college savings goal will come from interest," he said. "If they wait until the child enters high school, less than 10 percent of the goal will come from interest."

To help Alabamians save money, for the last seven years the Alabama State Treasury Office has offered a 529 fund — a program that provides flexible investment options and tax credits to build college savings. Most states have similar 529 funds. Information from the treasury office shows about 23,000 Alabamians are in the program.

There are no qualifications required to enter the program other than the participant must be a state resident who is at least 18 years old. Individuals in the program can receive up to $5,000 in tax deductions that go directly into an account that can be used only for college-related costs.

To encourage more people to enroll, the program will give away $529 in account prize money every Friday in May leading up to May 29, when the program will give away $2,529 in account money.

Still, not every college student is destined for high loan debt.

Beretha Washington of Tuscaloosa graduated from JSU on Friday with a bachelor's degree in nursing, but only has a $6,256 loan to repay. Washington said her work for a Veterans Affairs office in Tuscaloosa helped her pay the majority of her college costs.

"I did get some financial aid at the end but I'm not concerned," Washington said. "I'll just set up a payment plan."

For more information about the 529 fund, visit www.collegecounts529.com.

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct an error regarding the number of Alabamians enrolled in the state's 529 college savings plan. About 23,000 Alabamians are enrolled in the program, according to the program's administrators.

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