Grads paying more in loans

A survey found loan debt more than doubled for students from 1992 to 2004.

Cati Vanden Breul

Lydia Aleckson graduated from the University’s School of Nursing in June with $22,000 in student loan debt.

She started taking out student loans during her second year and is now in the six-month grace period following graduation, a period when students do not have to make loan payments. She said she estimates her payments will be roughly $250 a month as part of a 10-year repayment plan.

Aleckson is not alone. The percentage of students who graduated with student loan debt more than doubled between 1992 and 2004, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Education.

Although, Aleckson said, it would have been nice to pay for college without student loans, she was grateful for the opportunity to finance her education.

“I’m OK with it. I wish I could have paid for it myself, but I don’t know anyone who really does that,” she said.

In 2003-04, approximately 60 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients at public four-year universities graduated with debt, compared with only a quarter in 1992-93. The median amount that students borrowed increased more than $8,000 per student in current dollars.

The survey, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, found that while the percentage of lower-income students with loan debt remained relatively stable during the last decade, students with family incomes of $100,000 or more borrowed at significantly higher rates in 2003-04 than in the early ’90s.

“There is a very distinct reason why the higher-income (borrowing) percentage went up so much,” said Melanie Corrigan, associate director of the American Council on Education Center for Policy Analysis.

When Congress reauthorized the Higher Education Act in 1992, it opened up the student loan programs to anyone attending college instead of just students with financial need, she said.

Because interest rates for student loans are competitive, taking out loans is a low-cost way for families to pay for college, Corrigan said. High-income families might opt for student loans instead of taking money out of their investment plans to pay for higher education, she said.

The percentage of students from families with incomes of less than $30,000 who borrowed rose only 7 percent throughout the duration of the survey, but high-income students saw an increase of more than 40 percent.

“Lower-income students were borrowing in ’92, and they are borrowing now, so you don’t see as dramatic of a shift,” Corrigan said.

Incomes have risen along with student loans, but not as much, Corrigan said. In 1992-93, the average graduate was paying $95 per month; by 2003-04, the amount has risen to $169.

“The debt burden is inching up,” she said.

Aleckson said she’ll be able to make her payments as long as she finds a job.

“It’ll be doable once I find a job,” she said. And she’s luckier than most, she said, because finding employment in the nursing field is easier than in some other areas.

The survey clearly shows students of all income levels are relying more heavily on loans to finance their education, Corrigan said.

“The median debt for a bachelor’s degree is about $16,000,” she said. “If you look at that investment over a lifetime, and you say a person with a college degree makes a million more than someone with a high school diploma, that’s a pretty reasonable return.”

Aleckson said she agrees.

“I think of it the same way as I would charge my books to my student account. For me, it’s a school expense.”