Illinois 24th in the Country for Student Debt
Inside Subprime: Nov 2, 2018
By Holly Kane
A recent study placed Illinois 24th in the country for student debt, with 61 percent of 2017 graduates owing money on student loans. The non-profit Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) released its annual report profiling the average American college graduate, putting Illinois degree recipients smack dab in the middle owing, on average, $29,000 after completing a bachelor’s degree.
Nothing new, right? Most Millennials are in debt – about 75 percent – and have come to accept that homeownership and retirement are pipe dreams. (Even worse, 34% of recently surveyed Millennials use or have used payday loans to get by.) The traditional narrative says a degree guarantees a job and higher education is the gold-standard for a worthwhile investment. So how did an entire generation end up in life-ruining debt? One answer: they didn’t know.
When scoping out colleges, students have few reliable resources for anticipating the real cost of their education. Per the Higher Education Act of 1965 , postsecondary institutions receiving Title IV funds must provide an online net price calculator that uses “institutional data to provide estimated net price information … based on a student’s individual circumstances,” according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The problem is, these costs are typically self-reported by the institutions, and are not externally verified.
“Colleges are not required to report debt levels for their graduates, and the available college-level federal data do not provide the typical debt for bachelor’s degrees or include private loans,” the TICAS report said.
Furthermore, statistics like job placements are usually reported by alumni, an inexact measurement considering those with well-paying jobs are the most likely to respond, according to a March 2017 article by the Hechinger Report. A lawsuit brought by a law school graduate alleging the school knowingly misreported employment data lead experts to conclude that, although schools might report data to the best of their ability, there is no “accountability mechanism.”
“[The student] lost, and judges in similar cases have agreed with the law schools and ruled that students enroll in higher education at their own risk,” the article said. “No institution can guarantee employment, they’ve said.”
The TICAS report concluded by calling on government to take responsibility, underscoring “an urgent need for federal and state policymakers to address the challenges of affordability and burdensome debt for all college students.” So why don’t they?
In short, they don’t have to. When Congress reauthorized the Higher Education Act in 2008, it added a provision banning the creation of a national database that would connect student information with information from other agencies. Designed to protect students’ privacy, the ban does not allow, for example, a person’s income information from the IRS to be affiliated with their level of education that’s collected by the Census Bureau. There is no verified data at the national level that tells prospective students what they can expect to earn after graduating.
Things have changed since 2008. By 2015, it had taken a little over a decade for nationwide student debt to increase by 400 percent, jumping from $240 billion in 2003 to $1.2 trillion in 2015. Most students – 70 to 80 percent – hold time-consuming jobs while attending school, a far cry from the traditional picture of a college student waiting tables for the summer to get through the semester.
College students are also more likely to transfer schools since the law was reauthorized, (about a third of bachelor’s degree recipients attend more than one institution), but existing federal data exclude transfer students. Much like the constrictive institution-level data, there is no national protocol for universities when it comes to accepting transfer credits. And because most transfer students cross state lines, they end up paying again for courses they already passed, according to a 2013 report by the College Board, which decried information provided for students by institutions as “nonexistent or indecipherable.”
In July of this year, the College Transparency Act of 2017 received additional bipartisan support when a Republican senator backed the legislation, with the latest signator being a Democratic senator. The bill calls for the National Center for Student Education Statistics to develop a data system by coordinating with other federal agencies, overturning the ban that prevents one database connecting different sets of data.
“The current college reporting system is overly burdensome on institutions, yet provides little practical information for students and families due to significant gaps in college data reporting,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), one of the bill’s original cosponsors, in a 2017 press release.
“These staggering gaps in the data often leave policymakers and prospective students with a mistaken understanding of student performance at individual schools,” said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, in an editorial supporting the bill. “Congress should pass [the College Transparency Act] to ensure the federal graduation rate reflects students of the 21st century.”