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While the conversation was happening on stage, the realities kept rolling across the large screen off to the side, outlining the impact of our inspiration to sell college on the installment plan.
- Student debt is the only part of household debt that rose during the Great Recession.
- Student debt tripled from 2004 to 2012, and now tops a trillion dollars.
- One in 10 student debtors owes more than $54,000, and one in six is in default. Eighty percent of the borrowers behind on their student debt payments did not complete their degree.
It's just possible that financing higher education this way was not the most brilliant idea we ever had.
Wednesday, Portland State sponsored a gathering, "From Debt to Degree," surveying how we got to the point where someone graduating with a bachelor's degree can find himself more leveraged than a Wall Street hedge fund. The occasion was full of useful advice – don't borrow more than your first job will pay, which seemed a formula on a level with Miss Piggy's advice never to eat more than you can lift – but what was most striking was its picture of how debt now hangs over the college experience, and long years afterward.
"Money is on my mind every day, all day," explained Nina Nguyen, a student at Oregon State, who like others on the panel was approaching $30,000 in debt with many courses yet to go. "I try not to let it loom over me. I try to let it motivate me."
As state government disinvestment continues to drive tuition higher, Nguyen talked about the explosion of other college costs. "I was given a $250 scholarship for textbooks," she reported, "which is like half a textbook."
As thousands of graduation speakers have told millions of new graduates, getting the degree is not an ending but a commencement. That's particularly true when the new alumni are facing a debt payoff as long as a mortgage, shaping the choices they will make about their lives. "Do I leave this institution with confidence and pride to dream big dreams," asked PSU student Dayalo Bennette, "or do I tailor my dreams?"
And will he be in position to buy the homes and have the children that the economy and the society are counting on him for?
Rayna McMillian, an older student who works as a bartender and teaches "mixology" to support her dream of becoming a high school civics teacher – and if there's any prospective teacher worth a public investment, I think we've found her – says most dropouts she knows don't flunk out; they get priced out.
And then they're in the worst situation, with debt but no degree.
This is a national problem, but you can't say that Oregon helps much. As Betsy Hammond reported in The Oregonian last week, new reports from the College Board found that Oregon gave out only around $250 in state financial aid – one-third the national average and less than one-quarter what Washington gives out. At $3,700 in state spending per undergraduate student, Oregon is 47th in the country.
At football games, we could wave giant hands proclaiming "We're No. 47!" except it would be hard to get that much foam rubber.
The dramatic disinvestment by states in higher education, which Oregon has been leading – we learned this month that the state now pays a total of 5 percent of the operating costs of the University of Oregon – has steadily transferred the burden to tuition payers, and then to the loan market.
"At the very least, we have to get back to a point where it's truly a shared responsibility, where the burden is 50-50," said state Rep. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, chairman of the House Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee. Dembrow thinks that if the direction of the last legislative session persists – and if higher education isn't again first in line for hacking in the next economic downturn – this could be achievable over 10 years.
Higher education "is rising to the top of the Legislature's agenda," he said hopefully. "From the public talking to its representatives, we're near a tipping point."
Whether or not we ever return to 50-50, we need to move against a trend driving students to borrow ever more heavily against their own future, not just for their benefit but for everyone else's.
It's no public achievement – and no productive policy – to create a generation in hock.
David Sarasohn, associate editor, can be reached at 503-221-8523 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See other writing at oregonlive.com/sarasohn/