Students Tell Senate Financial Education Must Come Before College Debt


WASHINGTON—Increased financial literacy and guidance from universities are critical to lessen the burgeoning costs of higher education, a panel of students and education experts told a Senate committee Tuesday.

“Looking back at my years at Bowie State and how I secured my financial aid, there are a few things that I would have done differently or wished I had more information,” said Vivica Brooks, a senior studying business and marketing.

Brooks, a single mother, faces special financial challenges while working full time to finance her education alone and by juggling her personal responsibilities with schoolwork.

She has paid for schooling through Pell Grants, federal loans and scholarships but recently learned that there is a cap on subsidized loans, leaving her struggling to pay for her last semester of college. It’s a common trend among her classmates, with many students being poorly informed about repayment plans and borrower responsibilities.

“Some of my peers fear that debt, that loans will bind them. Others are ill-educated and believe they may not qualify for loans for various reasons such as grades,” she said.

Two-thirds of 2011 college graduates averaged student loan debt of $26,600, said Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a 5 percent increase from the previous year. The upward trend, he said, has been persistent over the past decade and must be countered with early education.

“If you wait until college to imbue financial literacy, it’s too late,” Harkin said. Fluency in everything from interest rates to debt accumulation is necessary for students to be prepared for college and their careers, he said.

Panelist Sara Goldrick-Rab, associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, suggested that college students be offered for-credit courses on understanding loans, so they aren’t blindsided by repayment costs when they graduate.

Goldrick-Rab said the text-heavy information provided to students on the loan process is full of complicated acronyms and complex terms and needs to be simplified.

The push for college affordability should begin at the state level, both Harkin and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., agreed. States are spending more on Medicaid, money that would otherwise be spent on public higher education, Alexander said. Universities have raised tuition to account for the difference.

Students now pay a higher percentage of operating costs at public institutions than state governments, Harkin said, leaving them to rely on loans more often. “The middle class is getting squeezed.”

A top priority for lawmakers and students is to ensure student loan interest rates don’t double to 6.8 percent this June, an increase that Congress avoided last year. The bump would make it even more difficult for struggling borrowers to afford their payments and potentially deter new students.

“There’s no bigger economic or educational failure,” Harkin said, “than having a committed and prepared student that has to forgo a postsecondary education because it is just too expensive.”

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