Reducing student debt requires a national commitment

What will it take to reduce student debt?

Tonight, as families of high school students across the country sit down to eat dinner, talk will likely turn to college applications. For those in the midst of the process, the conversation will almost definitely touch on affordability. And for those still a year or two out from college, the conversation may turn to whether or not the entire undertaking is even worth it.

These topics are directly related. As an industry, higher education cannot hope to put to rest questions about value until we accept — and address — the challenges we face on affordability.

We all know the statistics — they're cited almost daily. Seventy percent of students are taking out loans to earn their degrees. Those who earn a four-year degree will graduate with an average of $30,000 in loan debt. And last year, total student debt in this country surpassed $1.2 trillion — triple what it was a decade ago.

These are frightening statistics. And while we all point to the greatly increased earning potential of students with a four-year degree, we have to acknowledge that the debt they've accumulated during the course of their education is likely to have a chilling effect on their prospects after graduation. The Federal Reserve reports that student loan borrowers are already pulling back from the housing and auto loan markets because of the pressure of student loan debt, now the second largest form of consumer debt behind mortgages.

So what's to be done?

The answer is pretty straightforward but not terribly sexy. Institutions, state and federal policymakers and families need to make a commitment to one another and to our students to find solutions.

Institutions are actively developing innovative ways to keep a postsecondary education within the reach of students and their families. At Frostburg State University, we have long had the Associate Degree Scholars Award for transfer students, which allows graduates from any Maryland community college to transfer to FSU to complete their bachelor's degree for about the same price they paid at their community college. Our county government has also stepped up, creating the Allegany County Opportunity Scholarship, which provides up to $2,000 to local residents to attend FSU.

We want our students to leave FSU with a degree and the smallest student debt load possible. We know that's the best way to ensure their future success. And that's why higher education observers nationwide continue to sound the alarm about declining state support for public institutions.

Nationally, per-student funding has dropped by nearly 25 percent over the last five years, reaching an unprecedented 25-year low. In Maryland, we've managed to work creatively with state policymakers to secure much needed support, but that isn't the case in many states, and when state support falls, it is the students who bear the ultimate burden of higher tuition prices.

But the burden of student debt is a national problem, and it requires a national commitment as well. Students and their families must be able to count on Congress to keep interest rates low, to resist the allure of making money off student loan programs, and to offer opportunities like income-based repayment and public service loan forgiveness programs.

To truly have this level of government support in place, ranging from local to national, would provide some necessary assurances to that family sitting down to dinner. We would be speaking and living a promise that a college education remains the single best path to a bright future. There are institutions and policymakers who are committed to finding creative ways to lessen the financial burden associated with a diploma. And families have steps they can take, too. They should seek out institutions that are prioritizing cost containment and encourage policymakers to favor investments in education.

By holding all of us accountable, we can build a future that includes high quality, high value degrees for students. After all, they deserve to live the American dream and do so with a diploma as their starting point.

Jonathan Gibralter is president of Frostburg State University. His email is president@frostburg.edu.

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