Student loan debt burdening millions

A $1.5 trillion debt.

Owed by 45 million people, or 15 percent of the U.S. population.

Backed by the U.S. government, and by extension, taxpayers.

Anyone who thinks this country’s growing student debt crisis doesn’t affect them is sorely mistaken.

That’s the message from a certified student loan counselor, and he says it’s true for all folks whether they owe on student loans themselves, have a kid in college, or have never even heard the term “financial aid.”

“I think it affects the economy,” said Greg Radosevic, who works for national credit counseling company Apprisen, which has a branch in Kennewick at 401 N. Morain St. “If you have these people paying back this debt, that money isn’t available for other things. If you are a small business owner, or even if you work for a company …”

“You have generations of folks saddled with student debt,” continued Radosevic, who works in Apprisen’s office in Canton, Ohio. “That’s money that doesn’t go toward houses, cars, clothes and food, but instead is reaped in by the financial services industry.”

In Benton and Franklin counties, student debt is considerably lower than national averages but still substantial.

According to the Urban Institute, which keeps track of student debt on a county by county basis, 14 percent of the population in Benton County owes money for student loans. Of those who owe, 12 percent are in collections.

The median debt (half of borrowers owe more, half less) is $15,250 for a $169 monthly payment.

The numbers are similar in Franklin County: 12 percent of the population has student debt, and 12 percent of those with debt are in collections. The median debt is $14,709, for a monthly payment of $142.

Radosevic said that even 10 or 15 years ago, it was rare for someone to come in who was behind on their student debt. Now, it’s a problem for more than half of his clients.

“Especially after the (2008) recession,” he said. “A lot of people went back to school because they didn’t have anything else to do (after losing their jobs) and thought they could better their situation.

“Unfortunately, the only thing they were left with is student debt and a job that pays less.”

And it’s getting worse.

Consider these numbers about the college class of 2018 from Savingforcollege.com and the U.S. Federal Reserve:

  • 69 percent took out student loans.
  • Borrowers graduated with $29,000 in debt.
  • 14 percent of parents took out federal Parent PLUS loans and owe on average $35,600 on top of whatever student loans their kids have.
  • Average monthly payment on a student loan is $393.

Don’t expect the cost of college to level off anytime soon, especially if it continues to follow a trend going back nearly 35 years.

The National Center for Education Statistics shows that the average cost of a year at college — tuition, fees, room and board — was $4,885 between 1985-86 (about $10,700 in today’s dollars). By 1995-96, it had grown to $8,800 ($13,572 adjusted to today). In 2015-16, the yearly cost reached $22,432.

“The absolute last resource (students) should go to would be student loans,” said Ben Beus, director of financial aid at Columbia Basin College in Pasco. “There are a lot of resources out there, so a lot of students mistakenly think they’re not going to qualify for aid, so they’re not going to apply. Student loans are just one type of resource available to students.”

That is the message passed along to every student at Hawk Central, CBC’s clearinghouse of information on such things as admissions and registration, campus life and, yes, student loans and financial aid.

“It’s their first exposure almost every time, especially the first-year students coming into us,” Beus said. “Most students are very uninformed about the whole process, and so you have to coach them along.”

That emphasis on alternatives to student loans seems to be paying off, as CBC’s student loan numbers have been decreasing in recent years.

Year to date for the 2018-19 school year (not counting summer classes), CBC students received $3.3 million in student loans, spread out among 580 student borrowers ($5,600 per borrower).

That’s down from $3.9 million in loans among 715 students in 2016-17.

Also, CBC’s three-year default rates are declining: 11.2 percent in 2016 (latest numbers), from 12.4 percent in 2013.

“It’s important for us as a community college not to push the idea of student debt on our students,” Beus said.

He said there is a lot of information out there on student financial aid and loan alternatives — studentaid.gov is a great place to start.

“I can’t emphasize enough — you’re coming to school to get an education. It’s important for students to do their homework” on financial aid, Beus said.

Of course, that advice isn’t going to help current borrowers climb out of their debt hole.

Radosevic had this piece of critical advice for those who fall behind on their payments: Don’t ignore it, because it isn’t just going to go away.

“To me, the best way to come out of it is just to communicate with (lenders),” he said. “There are a lot of income-based repayments.”

There are federal programs to help defer payments or even forgive debt early. And if navigating websites about federal programs isn’t your niche, there is help out there.

“It’s a tricky line to work,” said Carey Donaldson, owner of NewBeginnings LLC, a student loan advocacy and consulting company in Spokane.

In a bit of irony, she said it’s often a lack of education that leads to panic over school loans.

“There’s not enough knowledge there,” said Donaldson, who is looking to expand her company’s services into the Tri-Cities. “That’s a big problem. That’s one of the reasons we have such a massive student loan debt problem — people just don’t understand (the system).”

She added that keeping up on all the changes and new programs is “nearly impossible, unless you’re in it like I am, because it’s your job.”

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