Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Student debt is killing our communities

Cross-posting from the AFL-CIO's blog:
Isaiah Toney is the Student Labor Action Project coordinator in Washington, D.C., and a senior at the George Washington University.

When I finish classes in August of 2012, I will have something like $78,000 in student debt. That's about three times the national average, which is just over $25,000 in student debt upon graduation.

And I'm not even the least lucky. I have friends who will graduate with six digits in student debt.

Sometimes people try to argue that we are asking for special treatment when we talk about lessening the burden that these loans place on graduates, but this is a red herring.  We are asking that we all take notice of the threat that these unfair debts place upon the millions of college graduates' economic futures—and the economic future of our country.

Let's look at my own example. As I pay off my loans over the next (hopefully) 15 years, I'll be sending my income straight to Sallie Mae, which will send a good deal of that money straight into the pockets of executives like Sallie Mae CEO Albert Lord, who made $240 million in three years and into its lobbying efforts to make it more expensive to go to college. That's money that I won't be spending going to see local performances or donating to local causes that I care about (there is a middle school marching band going down my block as I write this and I want to be able to support them). I won't be contributing to a local economy at the same time that I will have to reconsider things like becoming a public school teacher for fear that I may end up like one of those student loan borrowers who default on their loans.

And Congress is neglecting the Pell Grant, one of the most powerful tools for getting students into college classrooms by giving students up to $5,550 (Department of Education says that the average was $3,984 in 2011). Thirty years ago, the Pell Grant covered around 70 percent of average tuition, but now that number is only 34 percent.

Put another way, the fact that Congress cut $10 billion from the Pell Grant between this year and last year is not a surprise. But it is a problem.

We need to make college affordable, and soon. It affects students’ ability to attend college, find a job that they can do because they care, stay financially solvent and do things like purchase a home. It affects seemingly small things that when multiplied across a generation of college graduates has an enormous impact on our economy. And we have an opportunity to make those changes.

For starters, we can keep interest rates on loans from rising too high and lower those rates that are already too high. That small change with a big impact is exactly why I am going with the Student Labor Action Project on May 24 to the shareholder meeting of Sallie Mae, the largest student debt lender and trendsetter, to ask for a meeting with Albert Lord. We want to talk, and we want to work.