Note: This is for Monday, July 2, release
The onset of summer is usually no time to start thinking about paying for college in the fall but for many who carry crushing debt after graduation, the cost of a college education is never far from their minds.
There are several bills in Congress right now including one which the House is slated to take up next week and a companion measure in the Senate that could go a long way toward cleaning up the student loan mess, reducing overwhelming debt and making access to a college education more affordable.
The numbers compiled by the Project on Student Debt are depressing.
In 2004, the latest data available, two out of every three graduates of a four-year college or university were in debt for their education. In 1993, less than half of college graduates had loan payments coming out of school. The average debt level for graduating seniors in the country is $19,200.
But for those who think that is skewed by the cost of private education, graduates from public colleges and universities have an average of $17,250 in student loans to pay back. and that doesn't include accruing interest over the years.
In Massachusetts, the average student debt is $18,169, ranking us 21st in the nation with 1 being the highest debt and 50 being the least.
Massachusetts public school graduates have $14,326 in loans, ranking us at 46, while those with private school degrees have to pay back an average of nearly $20,000, ranking the Bay State 28th.
Harvard does the best by its students in state, with less than half its graduates carrying debt and then only at an average of $8,769. Schools with hundreds of millions in endowments cannot afford to offer grants and scholarships at the same level. Graduates of Curry College in Milton, for instance, go into the workforce with an average of $25,000 in student loans.
Mom and dad are also mortgaging their future. Not including equity loans, refinancing or second loans, about 15 percent of parents take out federal PLUS loans for an average of $17,700.
Is it any wonder so many promising teachers and other public employees are forced to quit to find jobs that can help them get out of debt, buy a house and start a family?
The bills in Congress would be a start.
Loan repayment would be capped as a percentage of disposal income, about 10 percent of total income, and adjusted for size of families.
Students who faithfully make payments over the course of 20 years would have the remainder of their debt forgiven at that point.
Public sector workers such as teachers, police and firefighters, social workers, emergency management employees, public health, public defenders and the like could have their loans forgiven after working at least 10 years while making their payments.
How can we ask, for instance, an assistant district attorney to accept a job for $35,000 when she has to pay back $32,000 in loans for undergraduate and law school?
The bills, aptly called the Student Debt Relief Act of 2007, would also increase the Pell Grants, which go to mostly middle-income families who often carry the most debt, to $5,010; halve the interest rate for federally subsidized Stafford loans from 6.8 to 3.4 percent; and create a tax credit of $1,500 for interest on higher education loans.
Federal officials estimate nearly half of college-qualified high school seniors do not attend a four-year school because of cost concerns. More than 20 percent of low-income students who are academically qualified for higher education do not attend any college at all.
As the global economy continues to grow, a college education is more than something to brag about; it's a necessity.
We need to make sure the cost of higher education does not come at a price few can afford to pay.