Student loan debt forgiveness ranks high on Occupy Wall Street protestors list of concerns. What are the issues surrounding college debt?
Record student debt in an era of high unemployment is fueling the Occupy Wall Street protest and its demands for student loan debt forgiveness.
Members of the class of 2011 graduated from college with an average of $22,900 in debt – an increase of 8 percent from the prior year, according to Consumer Reports. And, the Wall Street Journal tells us that student debt has reached the $1 trillion mark and now exceeds debt owed on credit cards.
Loan repayments are difficult - if not impossible – for the large number of unemployed and underemployed graduates who are at risk of default. Their frustration has helped coalesce a national protest movement that began in a small private park off Wall Street in downtown Manhattan. The agenda includes more general calls for “economic justice” and a specific call for student loan debt forgiveness.
Financing college is a significant concern for most American families, who worry about making ends meet, saving for retirement and caring for elderly parents – as well as paying tuition – in a time of declining income. Results from a Millionaire Corner survey conducted in March illustrate the financial stress felt by most households in the sluggish recovery. Nearly 43 percent of families with $100,000 to $1 million in investable assets list financing the education of their children as a key concern and 32 percent worry about paying the educational costs of their grandchildren. These Main Street households are also worried about aging parents (53 percent), having enough money set aside for retirement (63 percent) and maintaining their current financial position (62 percent).
In the past college loans were considered “good debt” because of their relatively low interest rates, said Morningstar contributor Christine Benz, who recommends a much more “defensive” attitude toward student debt in the current economic environment. While unemployment remains above 9 percent, the student default rate has increased to 9 percent for new graduates.
College costs, increasing at an annual rate of about 5 percent a year, are placing an increasing burden on American families, Consumer Reports said, but in general college remains a good investment. College graduates are employed at a significantly higher rate than less well educated Americans and earn significantly higher income. At the same time, families of college age students must carefully evaluate options for paying for college.
Families can start by determining whether their students will qualify for financial aid, scholarships and work study programs, then they can calculate how much of the cost the family will bear. College cost calculators can help families figure their ability to repay loans given the amount borrowed and a student’s expected earning power. Parents also need to carefully evaluate the different types of loans available to college students, said Benz. Federal loans are awarded to students based on financial need, but amounts are limited. Parents are also able to borrow from the federal government to pay college costs, but interest and payments on these loans begin immediately. Banks make private loans to students and their families, but the rates are higher than government loans. Looking before leaping into student debt can help students and their families avoid default and the need for student loan debt forgiveness.