American consumers owe mountains of debt, but one of these mountains looms large over all the others: student loans. It’s astonishing to consider: Add up every auto loan in the country, and total student loan debt is bigger. Add up every credit card bill in the country, you only get about three-quarters of the way up the student loan mountain. Only mortgage debt is greater, but those with mortgages have homes to show for their debt. These days, many Americans aren’t really sure what they got in return for their oppressive student loan bills.
There is little disagreement that adult life in America without a college degree is a struggle, and it’s only going to get harder as the economy continues to modernize and manual labor continues to be devalued. So it’s imperative that America figures out how to educate its young people without bankrupting them — but it’s important to understand how we got here.
A History Lesson
In some ways, you can blame the Russians. Sputnik, and the Space Race, specifically. The federal government first got into the student loan business as a direct result of the USSR’s successful launch of Sputnik into orbit, and widespread fear that America was losing the Space Race. In fact, the law that created student loans was called The National Defense Education Act.
America has lent money to teenagers ever since, with the good intentions of helping them compete in the global economy. Today, some 44 million Americans owe student loan debt — a majority of college students graduate with at least some debt, and the class of 2016 had an average student loan debt of $37,000.
But even before the National Defense Education Act went into effect, America had committed to helping young kids who showed promise get college degrees. The federal government’s first real foray into pushing people towards college was The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act — the GI Bill — passed at the end of World War II. Colleges swelled as America repaid some of its debt to the Greatest Generation through free or discounted college.
By the 1950s, there were calls to extend what was generally considered a wildly successful program. But three terms in a row, a Senate-passed measure to increase federal funding for college died in the House. Then, on October 4, 1957, the Soviets sent shock waves through the country with their successful launch of Sputnik into space. That day Sen. Lister Hill (D-Alabama), chair of the Education and Labor Committee, read a memo from a clerk with a clever idea.
“Perhaps if they called the education bill a defense bill they might get it enacted,” recounts a Senate history page on the subject.
Hill latched onto the idea and National Defense Education Act was born.
Despite widespread public opinion demanding government action “in the wake of Sputnik” (the Senate history page’s words), House members were still resistant, calling federal college grants “socialist.” Other critics worried that the legislation interfered with the long-held principal that states and local communities were responsible for schooling. As debate progressed, supporters in the Senate offered a compromise: Much of the aid offered would come in the form of low-cost loans instead of grants.
That argument won the day. Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act in September 1958, 11 months after Sputnik’s launch. Uncle Sam was now a bank for college students.
Uncle Sam Becomes a Direct Lender to Students
NDEA loans are generally considered precursors to subsidized loans that became known as Perkins Loans.
That because it wasn’t long before the NDEA was expanded, and its inherent encouragement of defense-friendly subjects dropped. An amendment to the law signed by Eisenhower in 1964 increased funding, raised borrowing limits, and struck the provision that special consideration should be given to students who showed proficiency in math, science, engineering, or foreign languages.
By 1968, America had spent $3 billion extending student NDEA loans to 1.5 million undergraduate students.
In other words, Uncle Sam’s role as a direct lender for higher education was fairly well established by the time Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society ideas took hold. In 1965, the Higher Education Act included a further expansion of both loans and grants, this time aimed at lower-income Americans. The HEA established what we now know as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and directed the Department of Education to administer lending. Thus, the Guaranteed Student Loan (precursor to the Stafford Loan) was created.
HEA loans were different than NDEA loans in an important way, however. Students borrowed from banks, with the federal government acting only as a guarantor. That made Uncle Sam a co-signer, expanding the kind of funding available. (Since then, Congress has vacillated between preferring the co-signer role, and the banker role. Today, most federal loans are direct loans, but that could change again.)
Not surprisingly, college attendance soared, more than doubling from 1960 to 1970 (from 3.5 million to 7.5 million).
The Higher Education Act requires reauthorization every five years, each one a chance for Congress to change the law. Many of those provisions have been intended to expand the opportunities afforded by it. The 1972 Equal Opportunity in Education Act, known as Title IX, was passed to prevent discrimination based on gender. That same reauthorization also created the Student Loan Marketing Association (Sallie Mae), designed to encourage lending. In the 1980 reauthorization of HEA, PLUS loans were created, ultimately allowing parents to borrow money from Uncle Sam to pay for their kids’ college.
As Enrollments Rise, So Do Tuitions
Each loan expansion meant college attendance continued to expand, hitting 10.8 million by 1983. Today, it’s 20 million.
With more customers, and more funding, it should be no surprise that college tuition has soared right along with them. According to the College Board, annual tuition at a public (state) college averaged $428 in 1971-72. This year, it’s $9,648. During that same span, private tuition rose from $1,883 to $33,479.
So it should be no surprise that a chart showing the total outstanding student loan debt looks like a picture of the steep side of Mt. Everest. In 1999, former students owed $90 billion. By 2011, that figure had grown to $550 billion, an astonishing 550%. Since then, student loan debt has more than doubled … again.
Other Factors in Rising Tuition Rates
It’s important to note, however, that while one theory holds that the history of ever-widening availability of credit has led directly to higher tuition costs and higher debt, that’s not the only possible explanation. Higher education advocates also point to reduced state government spending on state colleges. As one example, Ohio State received 25% of its budget from the state in 1990. By 2012, that percentage had fallen to 7%. Students, often via borrowed money, must pay the difference.
F. King Alexander, president of Louisiana State University, painted a bleak picture in testimony before a Senate committee during 2015. More generous federal loan programs created in the 1950s and 60s had an unintended consequence: They nudged budget-crunched state governments towards a dark solution.
“State funding for higher education sits currently around 48% to 50% below where it was in 1981,” he said. “It was assumed that any new federal funding policies would simply supplement state funding, not replace it.”
But, today, states are ”getting out of the higher education funding business, to the point that the federal government has now become the primary funding source,” Alexander said. And while schools, states, and the federal government argue about the higher math of higher education, many students are left with personal education budgets that just don’t add up. To put a fine point on it, attorney and student loan expert Steven Palmer offers this sobering example:
“In 1981, a minimum wage earner could work full time in the summer and make almost enough to cover their annual college costs, leaving a small amount that they could cobble together from grants, loans, or work during the school year,” he says in a blog on the topic. “In 2005, a student earning minimum wage would have to work the entire year and devote all of that money to the cost of their education to afford one year of a public college or university.”
A Longstanding (But Growing) Problem
It’s important to note that burgeoning student loan debt — and the inherent problems those bills present to borrowers and their families — did not go unnoticed until recently. In fact, back in 1987, a New York Times article summarized the issue in a paragraph that sounds an awful lot like something Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders might have said during the 2016 Democratic Party primary races.
The growth of the problem is affecting not only individual lives, some authorities believe. They say the burden of debt is also chasing many students away from poorly paid public service jobs and forcing others to defer the start of a family and the purchase of a home or car, with economic and social consequences that have not been measured … Such cases worry education officials and other experts, who say that record borrowing for college threatens the financial stability of a generation of young people and their families.
At the time the article was written, the average debt for public college graduates was $7,000 ($15,000 in 2017 dollars). Since then, college tuition has risen at about four times the rate of inflation, and student debt, right along with it.
How Do We Fix Those Inherent Problems?
President Donald Trump did discuss the student loan problem on the campaign trail; his most significant proposal involved slightly more expensive, but also more generous income-based repayment plans for debtors. His plan would require 12.5% income contributions, but provide loan forgiveness earlier. The timetable for such a proposal is unclear.
The newly-minted head of the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, said during confirmation hearings that the (then) $1.3 trillion in student loan debt is “a very serious issue,” but didn’t indicate support for any particular solution. In her testimony, there is this tea leaf:
There is no magic wand to make the debt go away. But we do need to take action. It would be a mistake to shift that burden to struggling taxpayers without first addressing why tuition has gotten so high. For starters, we need to embrace new pathways of learning. For too long, a college degree has been pushed as the only avenue for a better life. The old and expensive brick, mortar, and ivy model is not the only one that will lead to a prosperous future.
A comprehensive solution will almost certainly require another reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The last reauthorization was signed by George W. Bush in 2008. It has been temporarily extended since then — Congress punted on a reauthorization during election season, which means it is overdue for another overhaul. DeVos told the Senate that she’s ready to get to work on that.
“I look forward to working with Congress and all stakeholders to reauthorize the Higher Education Act to meet the needs of today’s college students,” she said. The Education Department did not immediately respond to Credit.com’s request for comment as to whether there were any updates regarding DeVos’ plans since she testified.
Many issues remain on the table: Stakeholders are already arguing about enforcement of new rules against for-profit schools and the future of government direct lending vs. “co-signing” for borrowers. But the $1.4 trillion, 70-year-old problem is now an elephant in America’s living room — and no administration can make debt like that simply disappear.
What Can Students Do?
While solutions to the systemic student loan problem are unlikely to come to fruition overnight, there are some steps struggling borrowers can take to stay current on their payments — and to preclude that debt from harming their credit. (You can see how your student loans may be affecting yours by viewing two of your free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.)
Federal student loans borrowers, for instance, can apply for a deferment or forbearance if they’re temporarily unable to repay those bills post-college. They can also apply for an income-based repayment plan that can help lower monthly payments to an affordable level. Private student loan borrowers may also have these options available to them, but it varies by lender and there may be fees attached to certain requests. (It’s best to ask about these options ahead of time — you can find more about vetting private student lenders here.)
There are also ways to lower the cost of your college education before and while in school. These options include looking into scholarships and grants, working part-time while taking classes and attending community college for few years before transferring to a four-year institution — more on how to pay for college without building a mountain of debt here.