Student debt and the price we pay

Last year, the amount owed for student loans surpassed credit card debt.

That was troubling enough. But by the end of this year, student debt will have reached a new milestone: the $1 trillion mark.

“To put a trillion dollars in context, if you spend a million dollars every day since Jesus was born, you still wouldn’t have spent a trillion,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said in 2009.

Religious references aside, $1 trillion is a whole lot of money, and student debt is something most students have to live with every day.

More precisely, two-thirds of undergraduates at four-year colleges took on student loans in the 2007-08 academic year. The average cost of a loan? About $23,186 by graduation day.

A quick look at Occupy Wall Street protests around the country will show you students quite literally holding their debt over their heads.

“I am a college student buried in loans, facing tuition hikes, working two jobs with an unemployed father. I am the 99 percent,” one tweeted.

But even more frustrating is the case of students who accrue so much debt in the early years of their college careers that they can hardly afford to graduate and face the reality of paying it back.

The shrinking financial aid at the University and the uncertainty surrounding Pell Grants — a need-based aid program offered to 3,200 students at UNC — has forced, and will continue to force, many of us into hard decisions.

That’s assuming college debt is, in the end, a decision each of us has to make.

When we apply to colleges, we are faced with a variety of options. We choose between higher or lower-priced schools. In-state or out-of-state. Public or private.

For us out-of-state students, attending UNC can be a luxury. For the North Carolinian majority, that may be the case as well. But every student who has signed onto a loan should know what he or she is getting into.

As students, each of our cases is unique. We disagree with escalating tuition prices. We had families who couldn’t afford to save for our college education or graduated thinking there would be jobs to pay off our debt.

Regardless, we all lose.

At the same time, some students have managed to postpone graduate degrees or worked enough to pay their own tuition.

They’ve certainly earned the right to brag.

But some students actually thought that taking a loan was the fiscally responsible thing to do, thinking there would be jobs at the end of the journey. Think of all the students pursuing medical, law or business degrees who take out thousands of dollars worth of loans and now struggle to find work above minimum wage.

The answer lies in conversation with the banks that lend us money, the university officials that control tuition fees, the CEOs that dictate hiring and even politicians, whose decisions affect all of our communities directly.

It’s more than just finding someone to blame. It’s about students finding a responsible way to pay for a college education, and hopefully landing a job in the end.

Thanks for reading.

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