Debt shackles U.S. students

Julianne Malveaux | 5/2/2012, 5 p.m.

President Barack Obama hit a home run when he traveled to three colleges last week, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the University of Iowa.

While Republicans called it a campaign trip to swing states, the fact is that, at the cusp of graduation season, President Obama did the right thing to share his feelings on legislation that would either increase the interest rate on subsidized Stafford student loans or take money from essential women's health programs to maintain the 3.4 percent interest rate. In rallying students, President Obama is reminding them that their fate is in his hands.

An increase in the Stafford loan program would affect 7.4 million students. Cutting $5.6 billion from women's health programs would affect millions of women. Pitting women's health against lower student loan rates makes no sense. We could make headway if we simply treated students with the same leniency that we treat corporations.

In the wake of the bank bailout, financial institutions qualified for low-interest and even no-interest loans. Students have always had to pay their share, and in this economy a 3.4 percent interest rate can hardly be considered low. Now, if nothing is done the rate could rise to 6.8 percent, and 7.4 million students will be affected.

This is hardly compatible with President Obama's pledge to make our nation, once again, a leader in the educational arena. Instead, higher interest rates for student loans are a step backwards, and often discourages students from attending or continuing college, or it extends the time it takes for them to finish degrees.

This is especially true for African American, working class, and first-generation students (these characteristics do overlap), because these groups have scant finances and sometimes equally scant parental support, for their college journey.

The average college graduate leaves school with $25,000 of student loan debt, the average African American student with even more. The time it takes to complete college has inched up, partly because students stop out a semester or two to gather funds, and partly because some colleges have been forced to cut faculty so much that essential courses are not offered frequently enough. Students are shouldering a bigger burden on their student loans; and colleges, are also burdened, when state legislatures apply drastic cuts to their higher education budgets. Many states are hampered because they, unlike the federal government, can't carry deficits from year to year.

Yet, if we were able to invest in higher education now, we'd have a stronger workforce later. As it is, heavy student debt prevents young people from fully participating both in the labor force and life.

Many take jobs because they can make great money, eschewing jobs like social work or teaching, because they don't pay enough.

Many others, living with mom and dad, delay marriage and homeownership while they tackle debt. While these students took on debt knowing they'd have to pay it back, what kind of country makes upward mobility so unaffordable that students literally shackle themselves to debt so that they can have a shot at participating in our changing labor force.