As college debt soars, grads realizing their future is at stake
WASHINGTON (BP) -- "Go to war on student debt."
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, voiced the exhortation during the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee in mid-September.
"If your concern is to get young people into the churches or on the mission fields, the greatest enemy other than Satan himself is educational debt," Mohler said, "because there are far too many young people graduating who are slaves to that debt when they need to be unfettered slaves to Christ."
-- Chelsea Weikart
"It's time for us all to get real about college education and what it is, what it entails and what it's going to cost us and what it produces," Gacek said.
Student loan debt, which surpassed $1 trillion in late 2011, surpassed credit card debt ($975.7 billion) in 2008 as the leading cause of debt in the United States. While credit card debt is decreasing, student loan debt continues to rise, with the average student amassing $25,250 in educational loans, according to the nonprofit Project on Student Debt. Unlike credit card debt, which can be refinanced or wiped out with bankruptcy, student loans will not go away. Even in bankruptcy, the individual is expected to repay his or her loan.
During the FRC panel discussion, college debt experts encouraged students to make college choices in cooperation with their parents, talk about college goals and reduce spending before and during college.
The student debt problem begins when students and families do not prepare for college spending, said panelist Sophia Ephraim, a Dave Ramsey-certified financial counselor and founder of Haven Financial Counseling Services in Laurel, Md.
Students should not simply forgo college because they did not plan for the financial consequences, Ephraim told Baptist Press. Instead, she encourages them to:
-- set goals and talk about affordable universities or colleges.
-- consider community colleges as a viable option for the first two years.
-- reduce their daily spending.
-- pay off loan interest as they go.
"Think about the mindset of, 'I can go to a community college for two years, take those credits and go to that university I had in mind for two years and save thousands of dollars,'" Ephraim said.
Parents also are overwhelmed with student debt. Only 31 percent of parents with college-bound students will consider the actual cost of college and the impact of college debt, according to investment giant Fidelity in its sixth annual College Savings Indicator study, which was released in August.
College senior Chelsea Weikart's parents tried to shield her from the worry of debt, but her $20,000 in loans isn't making it easy. Weikart, a student Malone University, a private college in Ohio, managed to save some money through grants and scholarships. When her parents' yearly income increased, however, her state grants were canceled. Her parents are adamant they will do all they can to help Chelsea pay off her debt, but they also have another daughter just starting college. Now Weikart is looking ahead to graduation wondering how she will pay off her debt without the assurance of parental help.
"I definitely still worry about it," Weikart told Baptist Press, "You feel like when you start after college you're not starting fresh and clean, you're starting, like, way in the negative. So from the very beginning the odds are against you. Or at least it feels that way."
Weikart's $20,000 loan debt, which will reach nearly $23,000 when she graduates, is on the low side, compared to the $70,000 to $90,000 that other students are strapped with.
Many students enter college with a glamorized view of what they want in their career and don't think enough about the money aspect of it, said panelist Andrew Gillen, senior researcher at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. The academic quality of a college is impossible to determine, Gillen said, so schools try to appeal to students based on reputation. Thus, they must spend more money on their marketable appearance, which raises tuition for students, he said.
If schools switch their focus from marketable value to academic value, they become much more affordable to students, Gillen said. This can be done by providing as much information about academic quality as students need to make an informed decision for the type of education they want, he said.
Students today are not always in a position to go to whatever college they want without serious repercussions, Gacek said, but they often don't realize it until they are in college looking at massive loan payments. One of the goals of the Obama administration is for more people going to college than ever before, the president said in a recent statement. Gacek warned that the president's goal has the wrong focus, noting that students must balance their academic focus with what they are actually able to afford after college.
"We are beyond the point where we can afford this pie in the sky kind of view of the world," Gacek said.
Anne Reiner is an intern with the Washington bureau of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).