The New York Times reported last week that student loan debt will outpace credit card debt for the second year in a row and will likely top $1 trillion this year. The average debt for bachelor’s degree recipients who borrow to pay for education is now $24,000—over a 10-year period that’s more than $250 per month in loan payments.
When used wisely, student loans can be “good debt,” providing students access to a lifetime of greater earnings. But for many students, poor use of their loans can tip the balance toward bad debt. That’s why the federal government should provide students with the resources they need to use loans to help them achieve their educational goals without racking up so much debt that it keeps them from reaping the benefits of their degrees.
College tuition is rising, and as public subsidies for higher education retreat, families must make up the difference—often with loans. But increasingly, students graduate with debt so high that for some the payoff of a college education does not outweigh the burden of debt. Student loans keep graduates from saving money, getting married, and buying houses and cars. Many will not finish paying off their loans until their own children are in college.
To avoid unnecessary indebtedness, students and families need to find smarter strategies to pay for college. They should consider their likely incomes upon graduation before borrowing money. They should investigate alternatives for lowering the cost of attendance, like enrolling in dual high school-college programs to earn credits early, or supplementing in-person coursework with cheaper online options. And they should avoid institutions that charge far more than their services are worth.
These all seem like simple suggestions, and indeed many families try to make smart decisions about college. But it is extremely difficult for students and parents to get advice about these things unless they are willing to pay for it. This shouldn’t be the case. Given the worry that the rising reliance on student loans is creating a higher education “bubble” similar to the housing market and the personal consequences of too much debt, the federal government should make advice about college choices every bit as accessible as student loans themselves.
Some colleges already recognize that a little advanced counseling can affect student borrowing and loan defaults. Tidewater Community College in Virginia, for example, requires students to have a realistic budget in place before gaining access to student loans. Programs like this are low-cost solutions that go a long way to eliminating needless debt and loan defaults.
The federal government can require colleges to provide families with updates about their borrowing including loan balances and estimated monthly payments each semester. The Department of Education should also require that colleges make financial counseling available to all students and mandatory for students whose loan balances exceed a specified amount. As student loans become an ever more important source of funding for many college-bound students, measures like these will help ensure the loans are an investment in their future rather than a burden.
Julie Margetta Morgan is a Policy Analyst with the Postsecondary Education Program at the Center for American Progress.