Graduation Season Shouldn’t be Debt Season

CPPP Leslie Helmcamp

High school graduates across Texas will make important decisions about their future this month. For those who haven’t decided about college yet, it’s time to weigh seeking a full-time job or enrolling in classes next fall. Adults already in the workforce may be considering postsecondary training to qualify for better jobs. All of these Texans share the financial concerns that come with paying for college, including the rising share of students who rely on debt to finance their degree.

College is still the best bet for a higher paying career, lower unemployment and better economic mobility, but many low-income Texans do not attend college or struggle to finish because they have limited financial resources.

The lion’s share of paying for college has shifted from the state to students and families, largely in the form of loans. Even with a modest increase in state support for higher education in the past year, Texas has not fully restored funding for higher education since state budget cuts in 2011. Between 2008 and 2014, state spending per student decreased 22 percent while tuition and fees at Texas public universities increased 18 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. And state financial aid investments have not been enough to reduce loan dependence for Texas students. In 2012, more than half of graduates from Texas’ public universities finished with debt averaging more than $22,000, much higher compared to 43 percent of graduates with average debt just more than $14,000 in 2001.

Too much reliance on debt can keep students from finishing their degree. Large amounts of college debt can hold some students back from qualifying for home loans or other large purchases. And student loans burden young adults by making them more susceptible to missing payments and entering default, even if they don’t graduate.

Despite these financial hurdles, Texas can improve college access and success rates for low-income Texans. Students who are at higher risk of not completing their degree or certificate program should have access to additional student supports, including intensive counseling, tutoring and other tools to reduce financial strains during college.

Amarillo College stands out among Texas colleges working to promote success, especially for students at higher risk of not completing their degree. The Panhandle community college system’s “No Excuses” initiative embraces a philosophy that students can succeed when institutions work to reduce barriers. The initiative’s resources include a food pantry, a student support coordinator, assistance with benefits enrollment and mentoring for under-resourced students.

During the past 15 years, Texas made progress toward the enrollment and graduation goals in the state’s current higher education master plan, “Closing the Gaps by 2015.” Moving forward, the state and colleges and universities will need to address lower college participation among Hispanic students. And Texas must do more to increase college attainment for low-income students in Texas — only one in 10 economically disadvantaged eighth-graders actually completes a postsecondary degree or credential.

The next higher education master plan should include robust goals and well-targeted strategies to reach low-income and adult students pursing higher education. These strategies include promoting financial education and increasing investments in need-based grant aid and work-study awards.

Students invest time and money into their education, expecting more than debt in return, and the state depends on an educated workforce to keep the economy growing. Without college success, everyone is short-changed in the end.

This was published earlier in the Austin American-Statesman on May 13th, 2014.

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