Everyone’s talking about student loan debt — celebrities Scarlett Johansson and Kerry Washington, President and Mrs. Obama, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Marco Rubio, and regular folks, too.

Nearly 40 million students have borrowed nearly $1.3 trillion, far exceeding credit card debt. Nationwide, 70 percent of new graduates have student loans, with average debt nearly $30,000. Here in Maryland, 59 percent of new graduates borrowed an average exceeding $26,000, according to The Project on Student Debt. Such debt is not limited to the young. According to AARP, some senior citizens are repaying student loans.

How did this happen? Tuition and fees for in-state students at the University of Maryland have increased twelvefold since 1980, from roughly $800 per year to $5,000 in the year 2000 to $9,600 today. Including room and board ($10,600), books and supplies ($1,100) and other expenses ($3,200), the total annual cost of attendance at our state’s flagship university now exceeds $24,000 for in-state students. Even for students who graduate in four years, the cost is nearly $100,000, however, Complete College America notes that less than 20 percent of students at public universities nationwide earn their degree within four years, thus adding more debt. The cost is higher at private institutions and in graduate programs where costs have also skyrocketed.

When new college graduates receive word that their grace period is ending and repayment beginning, many don’t know how much debt they’ve incurred. They don’t know if they have federal loans, which have protections and repayment options, or private loans, which often have higher, sometimes even variable interest and little flexibility. This debt has the potential for a chilling lifetime ripple effect on decisions regarding marriage, career, children, major purchases such as homes and vehicles, retirement savings and more.

The focus at Central Scholarship since our founding in 1924 has been on college affordability and price transparency. We are increasingly concerned about skyrocketing student debt and what it means in Maryland and nationally. While our focus is on helping low-income students in Maryland, our solutions would reach far beyond our constituency.

Our solutions for students and families include choosing a college wisely with net cost in mind, and staying on track to graduate in four years. Students should use existing tools to fully understand how much would be owed before ever borrowing. For example, the college cost comparison tool for students from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Students and families should seek and apply for private and institutional scholarships to reduce the need for loans.

For students and families who must borrow, we suggest federal loans only, which offer many protections and repayment options. Students should explore federal, state and local repayment and forgiveness options, such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness, Pay As You Earn, Income Based Repayment, and Income Contingent Repayment, and in Maryland, the Janet L. Hoffman program. Students should research employer-based repayment options, such as the federal government employee loan repayment program of the Office of Personnel Management. Unless absolutely necessary, private loans, which often have variable and higher interest rates, should be avoided.

Our solutions for federal, state and local government include expanding loan forgiveness and repayment programs in workforce shortage or underserved areas. The federal government should expand the Pell Grant program, ensure that Pell Grants are limited to low-income students, prohibit awards displacement and link federal aid to college affordability. Borrower education should be improved both pre- and post-loan, interest rates reduced, bankruptcy protections restored and refinancing allowed. Currently, refinancing is only available through several online startups and a few private banks or credit unions, but not from the federal government.

We encourage partnerships between higher education institutions and industry to develop more cooperative education program opportunities where students alternate semesters of study and meaningful paid work experience in their field of study.

We challenge higher education institutions, government, employers and organizations, to develop additional innovative solutions, and we challenge students and families to become wise consumers, with a goal of eradicating this crisis.

Michele Waxman Johnson

is vice president of Central Scholarship. She writes from Owings Mills.

(8) comments

darren

I have to disagree with the writer's solution. Making more easy money available to colleges (Via loans to students) only encourages schools to increase costs. It's simple supply and demand.

Offering more loan money to the students lets them compete against each other by offering to spend more on education. Then educators set next year's rates based on how much the students seem willing to pay. Once rates catch up with loan availability, people will demand that more federal funds be loaned out, and the cycle repeats from there.

des21

Absolutely true. The two things in America that have consistently outpaced inflation are higher education and health care. Both have large pools of public monies available for funding. The fact that people don't make this connection continually baffles me.

If the logic holds true- and I don't know why it wouldn't- the idea the the ACA is going to lower health care costs is arguable at best.

des21

Why is the emphasis always on making the debt easier to handle rather than lowering costs? When an industry (and education is, of course, an industry) has increased costs over 300% (more in Maryland apparently) in a generation, something is seriously wrong and corrupt and yet we focus on how our kids should be better able to pay these extortionist costs. Absolutely ridiculous and morally wrong.

DickD

There probably is some truth to what you say. When I was growing up we did not have swimming pools in the schools, we hitch hiked to lakes to swim or swam in streams. We did not have artificial turf for our football field, but we did not have the soccer, lacrosse, tennis, etc. as varsity sports. You wouldn't want children to hitch hike in today's world. You could not keep an adequate field with all the sports of today. In fact, girls had almost no sports when I grew up, that was totally wrong.

We did not have all of the support services in school they have today. We had the basics, none of the niceties. Yes, they could be cut, would you be happy if they are cut?

des21

I'm actually talking about things like premium cable in dorm rooms, gourmet food and beverage service, Olympic class work out facilities and 1:1 ratio of administrators to faculty. Those are the things that have driven higher education costs up.

I think the things you are writing about are more at the high school level and that's not really what we're talking about here.

DickD

I had no money, but my father cashed in a small life insurance policy and gave me the $300. It was enough to pay for my first quarter of college, room and board and books. Did I leave out tuition? No, tuition was free at New York State colleges, back in the 50's. Not as much prestige as an Ivy League school, but college. I worked at a number of jobs, ushering in a movie theatre, working in an A. & P. store, working in a greenhouse, caddying on week ends, working in a mill on holidays and summer vacations. But I borrowed no money and earned it all. I even earned a college letter wrestling.

threecents

College costs need to come down.

dcg326

Donald Trump says educate our children free, instead of giving billions to foreign countries, He will never B elected ,no free money to foreign countries says he.Our debt paid first

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