With debt soaring to new heights, student fight back

In the United States today, 120,000 students are qualified to attend college but cannot afford to go. Of those fortunate enough to attend school for four years, two-thirds pay student loans. The financial stress for many students does not dissipate after graduation either, as the rate of national student debt has grown to 60 percent in the past seven years.

In response to this increase in student debt, students are fighting back with the Student Debt Alert (SDA) campaign, which held its first organized event at the College last Tuesday in Brower Student Center.

Launched last fall, the nationwide campaign strives to inform people of rising loan debts for college students today.

Curious students traveling between classes or making trips to the bookstore passed by SDA’s campaign table that was taped with posters revealing that the average student debt after graduation is currently $20,000 in the United States. Another reported 39 percent of students who graduate after using student loans are grounded with unmanageable payments.

In the past month, Congress cut $12.7 billion from financial aid programs, the largest funding cut to student aid in history. With the decrease in funding from federal and state governments, colleges are pressured to increase their attendance fees and offer students more financial aid through student loans rather than grants.

“Every student at this college is eligible for loans,” Robert Aston, associate director of the office of Student Financial Assistance (SFA), said.

All students on campus are entitled to the Stafford Loan, a 10-year pay-off loan that offers $2,625 to freshmen, $3,500 to sophomores and $5,500 to juniors and seniors every year. Students can choose to use only specific amounts of the money offered to them through the loan.

This school year, 2,841 students of the College accepted the Stafford Loan to help pay for college costs.

The Stafford Loan, if used during all years of attendance, leaves four-year graduates with $17,125 of loan debt and five-year graduates with $22,625 of loan debt.

To improve student loans, SDA hopes to send hundreds of postcards to the Spellings Higher Education Commission, headed by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. The postcards state students’ concerns about graduating with debt.

Forty postcards had already been filled out by students on campus in the first hour of SDA’s campaign, which Kristin Dobbs, campus organizer for New Jersey’s Public Interest Research Groups (NJPIRG) of New Brunswick, thought was a good beginning.

“It’s important for everyone to get involved,” Dobbs said. “Even students who aren’t paying loans have friends who are paying loans, or can end up marrying someone who’s paying off loans. It’s important to organize around a problem that affects us all.”

Dobbs, a 2005 graduate of the University of Vermont, is paying off $45,000 worth of student loans, leaving her with federal payments of $350 per month.

“I don’t think that students should be hindered in or after school,” Dobbs said. “Colleges should open doors for students, not close them. Debts keep students from doing the things that they really wish to do.”

SDA plans on having more events at the College throughout the semester and collecting more public comments about debt for another project to be completed by the end of the spring.

Its goal is to collect 10,000 entries based on individual financial battles of students nationwide to put in an online yearbook, which the Spellings Higher Education Commission and the media can view.

“We don’t think we have the perfect answer for helping to improve loans, but we want to let people know the student debt situation and get people talking,” Dobbs said. “The more media we’ll have covering events, the more people we’ll hopefully see responding.”

SDA campaign meetings are held on Wednesday nights at 8:30 p.m. in the atrium of the Social Sciences Building. For more information on SDA, visit studentdebtalert.org or contact Dobbs at kristind@njpirgstudents.org.