World / US and Canada

Rising college loans burden more college students, graduates in US

(Xinhua) Updated: 2014-10-06 17:11

HOUSTON - The rising student loan debt in the United States are placing burdens on more and more college students and graduates, who may have to struggle for years before paying off their debts.

Ryan Smith, a college student majoring in musical theater, said the US student loan system needs a serious overhaul. The 20-year-old has to repay about $45,000 in the next 25 years, with a 6.8-percent fixed interest rate.

"One of the biggest issues is that schools are overcharging, because they know the loans will pay for it, and I feel there needs to be legislation put in place to prevent this," Smith said.

Jessica Hernandez, 35, who received a master's degree in psychology in 2013, is still repaying her 1996 student loan of 30,000 dollars for her bachelor's degree, and the 2009 loans she received for her master's courses, which is about 50,000 dollars.

Hernandez has seen interest rates doubled on student loans since her first one 17 years ago.

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"Interest rates for (my first) student loans are just under 3 percent fixed. The interest rate for my University of Houston at Clear Lake loans (in 2009) is around 6 percent fixed," Hernandez told Xinhua. "I'll be paying this off for 25 years."

Interest rates should be flexible, Hernandez said, so that when rates dip for other big expenditures -- mortgages, cars, etc. -- people that are still saddled with payments could refinance student loans with lower rates.

"Even a few percentage points make a huge difference in the monthly payments and the total amount of interest that you pay on the loan," Hernandez said.

Smith and Hernandez are not alone in thinking that tuition and interest rates are going up at the state-funded universities and private institutions.

Nerd Wallet, a personal finance web site, recently placed average student debt this year at $32,656.

According to the Institute for College Access and Success' statistics for 2012, seven in 10 college seniors (71 percent) who graduated in 2011 had student loan debt averaging $29,400. From 2008 to 2012, debt at graduation (federal and private loans combined) increased an average of 6 percent each year.

A recent report from the web site of the University of Texas at Austin offers a partial explanation of why state-supported universities like UT Austin must increase their costs annually.

"The tuition charged is in part dependent on the amount of state support received by the institution. In the early 1970s the state paid for nearly 85 percent of the cost of running the educational side of The University of Texas at Austin. Today, the state-appropriated fraction of the total budget for UT Austin is below 20 percent," the report states.

What the report calls "the growing gap between what it costs to run the university and what the state is able to contribute" has been partially covered by private donations, more efficient operations and other university actions.

"However, if the university is to maintain delivery of the quality of education for which it has become known, it determined it had to ask the students attending the university to pay for an increasing share of that gap," the report concludes.

The Huffington Post, an American online news aggregator, recently posted a snapshot of student debt across America today. The report said that outstanding student loan debt held by about 37 million Americans currently stands at $1.1 trillion, having hit the 1 trillion mark in 2012. This is the second largest category of debt in the United States only to mortgages.

Over the last five fiscal years, student borrowers have generated $101.8 billion in profit for the US Department of Education. The report also states that the amount of student loan debt has grown nearly 300 percent over the past eight years.

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Smith said he thinks politicians, instead of ruffling the necessary feathers to bring about a solution, would rather put a patch on the problem and leave the matter to future governments to deal with.

"Students, like myself, are seen as cash cows, because we have no choice in the matter," Smith said. "Corporations can influence legislation with buying power, Wall Street can influence legislation with buying power, but students have none. All we have is our vote, and that can only go so far. Our choices are to play by the rules or forfeit our shot at higher education."

Hernandez suggested the current Public Service Loan Forgiveness program should be expanded. Currently working for a non-profit organization in a job she loves, Hernandez said it does not cover her cost of living and student loan repayment obligations.

"My job is financially unsustainable for the long-term. If I could qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, then I could see myself in this job for the long-term," Hernandez said.

Smith, who hopes to ply his craft as an actor on professional Houston-area stages, said he loves performing and would do it even if he never got a dime, but knowing he must spend the first two decades of his career paying off student debt is disheartening.

"The world needs artists, the same way it needs doctors and lawyers...And while there can be money in art, it takes time to get to that point," Smith said.

He sees his post-graduate choices in 2015 as either succeeding in art immediately, or work a 9-to-5 job for years before he can afford to work at his craft.

"It's a tough pill to swallow, but I've never been one to give up, and I certainly won't let my loans keep me from doing what I love," Smith said. "But who knows? I could end up homeless in a year. I guess we'll have to wait and see."

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