In Kansas and across the country student debt is on the rise, though the debt burdens of Kansas students are, as you might expect, smaller.
A new report from the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit focused on college affordability, shows more than 70 percent of college seniors who graduated in 2012 left school with student loan debt.
That's a lot of indebted graduates. More troubling is that the average debt among them has grown. For 2012 the average debt load was $29,400. That number has been on the rise for several years, ticking up about 6 percent per year on average.
Kansas students are in a bit better shape. In 2012 the average debt taken out by KU students was $23,468, almost $6,000 less than the national average reported by College Access and Success, though that number has also risen from 2008's average of $20,902. For all students graduating from a public university in Kansas, the average debt load is $23,000, according to figures from the Kansas Board of Regents.
While those figures are far better than the national average, and while acknowledging that an average masks very different experiences across students, even Kansas' lower student debt figures could be a problem, especially for lower income students.
In a recent conversation with William Elliot, a KU associate professor of social welfare and the founding director Assets and Education Initiative, Elliott said that student debt burdens even below $20,000 can affect the long-term financial prospects of lower income students. Moreover, the prospect of debt can discourage loan-averse students from enrolling in 4-year programs or from going to college altogether.
To address the problem Elliott and others have advocated for encouraging college savings accounts and even restructuring federal financial aid to more of a savings model. Others are looking sharply at debt and graduate income levels to measure the value of a college education. And still others are just generally freaked out about the $1 trillion in outstanding student debt U.S. adults are trying to pay off.
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There's a chance you could see some KU researchers in the news on Monday, when a group of KU social welfare researchers is going to present a report about financial aid in Washington, D.C., with the help of the policy group the New America Foundation.
More details will be in their report, but I wrote about the group, the Assets and Education Initiative, earlier this year. The idea these KU researchers advocate, and what I imagine they'll be pitching in their first biannual report next week, is that America would be better off if it focused financial aid for college students less on loans and more on government-funded savings accounts that would be created at birth.
When I talked with the initative's director, William Elliott, about what to expect, he noted that this will be happening while financial aid is a frequent subject in the news, thanks to the recent doubling of subsidized federal student loan rates. For him and his colleagues, he said the aim would be to shift that conversation to the bigger picture, asking if student loans are really the best way to make higher education more accessible in the first place.
"There are different ways of thinking about the college debt situation, and how we can potentially maximize the dollars that we're already spending," Elliott said.
He says people should think not just about providing aid so students can attend college — they should think about providing aid that will help students be more successful in college and in their lives afterward. And his research has suggested that college savings accounts for children, even ones smaller than $500, would do just that.
Elliott says a contingent of four people from KU will spend Monday in Washington rolling out their report and hoping to draw some media coverage, and on Tuesday they'll meet with some U.S. senators and their staffs.
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