Is a degree worth the debt?

  • Associated Press
  • Saturday, October 27, 2007 8:58pm
  • Business

NEW YORK — As students pile up ever-increasing education loan tabs, some colleges and universities are starting to question whether they should be counseling these young borrowers — before they end up with debt that will take them decades to work off.

Educational institutions have not seen financial counseling of students as their responsibility, although many students have little understanding of debt and their own personal finances. Most schools focus solely on getting students the funds needed to graduate, skirting discussions about the risks of credit even as a typical debt load soars into the tens of thousands of dollars.

“There has been no discussion about whether this might be to the detriment of the student,” said Mark Oleson, director of the University of Missouri’s Office for Financial Success, which counsels student borrowers. “It has always been assumed that staying in school is all that matters.”

“Education has never been thought off as an investment that involves risk, but it does,” he said. “Just like the stock market.”

Kristen Overmyer, a University of Missouri student in journalism, didn’t take out enough student loans during her freshman year and so turned to credit cards, compounding her debt. She then borrowed $22,000 in 2006 and $23,000 this year from private banks but still needs several more years to complete her degree and anticipates similar loans each year.

“When I started taking out the loans, I didn’t realize what I was getting into,” said Overmyer, who said she hopes to be out of debt by the time she is 40 years old — 19 years from now.

Students’ debt problems are expected to worsen because they increasingly are taking out more expensive private loans that don’t have the benefits of government-backed loans with lower rates. They’re also procuring loans on their own over the Internet, bypassing schools’ financial aid offices.

Oleson, who is a professor in Missouri’s Personal Financial Planning Department, is part of a small but growing group of educators reaching out to counsel student borrowers — although unfortunately their services don’t always reach students in time.

The current trend points to worsening student-debt levels. The average debt load for graduate students in all fields nationwide ballooned by 150 percent to $37,600 in 2004 from 1994 levels, as undergraduate tuition borrowings shot up 108 percent to an average of $19,200, according to the Project on Student Debt.

Until recently, the bulk of student loans to undergraduates were federally administered at rates set by Congress such as those administered by student lender SLM Corp. But loans issued by private lenders are the fastest-growing segment of the market, according to the American Council on Education. Eighty percent of private loan borrowers are now undergraduates and this market now accounts for 20 percent of all student loans, the council said.

The dangers for students are that private borrowings can’t be disposed of in bankruptcy and feature variable rates that can skyrocket as high as 20 percent. Meanwhile, the growth of direct-to-consumer student loan pitches on the Internet and also cable television has made it easy for students to get money for school.

“These loans are marketed as being less labor-intensive to get,” said Jacqueline King, director of the American Council on Education’s Center for Policy Analysis. “Students think they can go on the Internet and get loans very quickly. You have a situation involving a new and largely unregulated product.”

Jonathan Avidan, a 2004 Boston University graduate, took out $18,000 in federal loans at a fixed 3 percent interest rate and more than $60,000 in private tuition loans at variable rates that eventually hit about 10 percent. He calculates he will be debt-free in late 2024.

At the start of his junior year, his parents told him they could not pay his tuition. Rather than attend junior college, he chose to borrow money to stay. “I wish I knew at the time that the choice to stay would be the most expensive of my life,” he said.

Robert Shireman, the Project on Student Debt’s executive director, said some Internet private tuition loan sites do not even show the interest rate on the loan under consideration until the student signs the promissory note online. “Technically the law does not require full disclosure until the loan is consummated, which can come after the promissory note stage.”

Many who have studied the problem believe schools must go beyond pairing students up with loans into educating them about the long-term implications of debt. A handful of schools have taken on the challenge, most notably Brigham Young University which about 10 years ago developed a loan and personal finance education program. The Brigham Young financial counseling program is integrated into the financial aid office, which is not the case at most colleges. It also features a personal finance Web site that warns against student loans from private banks.

The Brigham Young program asks students where they expect to live after college and what field they will enter, then projects their likely income and calculates how much debt they can take on. It also encourages undergraduates to visualize what type of home they would like to own and to understand what level of income will be needed.

One of the program’s creators, Todd Martin, associate director of financial counseling and communications at Brigham Young, said his eyes were opened some years back when he ran into a graduate who held Martin responsible for burying him in debt.

“He made me realize that we had been looking at loans as a process and students as part of an assembly line,” he said.

Iowa State, along with the University of Missouri and Brigham Young, is among the schools that take a proactive approach to student debt. However, Doug Borkowski, the director of Iowa’s Financial Counseling Clinic who meets with 600 students a year, said many other colleges are not receptive to his school’s stance.

“We approached a private college to see if they would like to provide a similar program,” he recalls. “They said no, because if students found out how much their borrowings would be and how long it would take to work off, they would switch to a public university.”

Some lenders including General Motors Acceptance Corp., Bank of America and J.P. Morgan Chase offer personal finance counseling services to students. However, a Bank of America spokeswoman said the majority of her bank’s student borrowers apply for their loans online and counseling is not mandatory.

Many students would rethink their plans if they knew more about their future earnings potential and what their debt loads will entail over time, according to the University of Missouri’s Oleson. Schools should offer programs that instruct students about both borrowing consequences and the financial implications of their majors, he said.

“It seems that many of the students getting into bad financial situations are getting degrees in fields that are difficult to market, like psychology and history,” he said. “The schools have to start giving students information about the financial consequences of their choices.”

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