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An Alert to the Dangers of Student Debt

By Michelle Singletary
Thursday, November 17, 2005

In a recent report, the nonprofit College Board says we all need to keep the rising cost of college in perspective.

Yes, the cost of getting a higher education continues to escalate, the board says. But college still remains an "affordable choice for most families."

Oh, really. "Affordable?" Interesting perspective, because many students have a different view.

Take Jessa Coughlin, for example. She attends the University of Wyoming and expects to graduate in 2007 with a degree in elementary education. Coughlin wants to be a teacher. But I wonder if she will ultimately choose to teach when faced with the $40,000 in student loans she has to pay back once she graduates.

Nicole Lamarche is 26 and a graduate of the University of Arizona. She finished graduate school in May, earning a master of divinity at the Pacific School of Religion. Lamarche has a little more than $33,000 in student loans.

"I suspect that it will end up meaning that I won't be able to think about buying a home anytime soon," she said.

Then there is Thomas Dillon, a sophomore at the University of Connecticut. Dillon is studying to be a pharmacist. The price tag for his six-year program: more than $150,000. Certainly pharmacists make good money, but Dillon said he expects to spend the first 20 years of his working career paying down that debt.

All these students have an upfront view of what it costs to attend college. That's why they've chosen to become part of a new initiative in which students are encouraged to chronicle their experiences of paying for college on credit.

The student Public Interest Research Groups and several state student associations have launched the Student Debt Alert Project, a virtual college yearbook where the questions aren't the typical ones about who is the class clown or the most popular student. It asks: "Why do you think students should not graduate with so much debt?"

College students from around the country can sign on to the Web site http://www.studentdebtalert.org/ and share their debt stories. The Web-based yearbook already includes photos and personal stories from 500 students from 10 college campuses.

"This campaign will enable students to be heard on the impact of their debt," said Christine Lindstrom, higher education program director for the student PIRGs, state-based groups that advocate for students.

Tuition costs loom over students and their decisions for years after they graduate, Lindstrom said.

Clay Cunningham, a senior at the University of Wyoming who wants to be a counselor, wrote this: "When I graduate, I will have gone to school for six years in order to make $30,000 per year. I will not make enough money to buy a house and pay off my student debt."

Nearly 39 percent of student borrowers graduate with unmanageable levels of federal student loan debt. The average student loan burden has increased by 60 percent in just seven years, Lindstrom said.

But keep this in perspective, the College Board says: About 60 percent of students attending four-year schools pay less than $6,000 a year for tuition and fees. That may be affordable for many. However, what if you have to borrow most of that $6,000 every year for four or five years? (And keep in mind that the $6,000 doesn't include housing.) The fact is, the number of students who graduate with more than $25,000 in loan debt has tripled since the early 1990s, Lindstrom notes.

"There has got to be a way to pay for college that doesn't plunge graduates into decades of debt," she said.

By collecting real stories from students and graduates in the online yearbook, project organizers hope to begin a national dialogue on campuses across the country about the increasing use of loans to pay for college.

"I'm angry and kind of stuck," said Casey Thomas, a junior majoring in social thought and political economics and history at the University of Massachusetts. Casey did what she could to reduce the amount of loans by opting to attend community college first. Still, Thomas, who wants to teach high school, said she will graduate with more than $20,000 in student loans.

This student debt initiative couldn't have come at a better time. Congress is poised to make changes in the federal student loan program that will make it more costly for students and their parents to borrow for college. The single largest source of deficit-reducing savings in pending budget plans comes from higher interest rates, higher fees and other structural changes in the federal student loan program, according to a report by the New American Foundation, an independent public policy institute.

"If we really want education to be accessible for everyone, our priority for funding should mirror that," Lamarche said.

I hope that every college student or graduate who has to pay for their education with loans will log on to StudentDebtAlert.org and give their perspective of what it's like to face decades of debt. I also hope that those with the power to make a difference read the entries from the students. After all, it is really their perspective that counts.

On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online athttp://www.npr.org.

By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

By e-mail:singletarym@washpost.com.

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