Alaskans have an average of $28,782 of it. Residents of Delaware have $33,649. Wherever you may live, student loan debt is a problem that hits home. Seven in 10 college seniors owe a national average of $29,400 in student loans. Combine that with 37 million student borrowers, and you have a $1 trillion (and growing) crisis. That’s right: Student loans are the biggest form of consumer debt outside of mortgages.
While these numbers show state and national averages, communities of all sizes experience the high cost of higher education. It’s an ongoing problem, and not just because of rising tuition costs. An 18-year-old, soon-to-be college freshman in your community is unlikely to understand the consequences of procuring student loans -- and how quickly they can mount from freshman to senior year.
It's telling when former students, struggling to make ends meet after college graduation, say "I can't help but wonder what my life would be like without student loan debt." That's why educating yourself, and then educating others, is one of the most valuable ways you can help reduce student loan debt in your community.
It's important to know what you, your family or the students in your community are getting into when signing onto a loan. Tactics such as limiting borrowing -- by taking out only the amount of money that you need -- will make a world of a difference when it’s time to start paying loans back. Taking out a $5,000 private student loan may not seem like a huge amount now, but it could become overwhelming in four years, with interest charges building while a student tries to find a job.
It's also important to discuss college options in addition to loan options. With more than 6,000 postsecondary institutions in the U.S., there's a lot of variance in factors like size, location and cost -- and the most expensive schools might not be the best fit. In everything, it’s important to "know before you owe."
Whether attending community college for the first time or enrolling in a Ph.D. program, student loan debt affects students at all ages and stages in life, which means that supporting all levels of postsecondary education is crucial. A recent New America report explains that about 40 percent of recent federal loan disbursements are for graduate -- not undergraduate -- student debt. The array of award programs that we've featured on our student-focused blog, The Scholarship Coach, demonstrates just how varied students’ educational goals are. From trade school to law school, and from high school seniors to returning adult students, scholarship awards for every stripe of student contribute to lessening student loan debt.
As students search for other ways to pay for college, advocating for community scholarships plays a vital role in lessening a student's loan burden. Supporting the creation and continuation of scholarships is both financially and psychologically fulfilling. Not only will it ensure that a student will receive aid that he or she can count on, but it bolsters the student's confidence to pursue their studies. To sweeten the deal, renewable scholarships can incentivize a student to stay in school: These multi-year awards are renewable based on meeting program requirements, such as a certain grade point average. Scholarships, grants and other awards that don't require repayment are the mark of a community's support for an education that will reap benefits for generations to come.
Last month, Max Espinoza, Scholarship America Senior Vice President, Education Programs and Policy, was a featured panelist at the launch of Higher Ed Not Debt, a multi-year campaign dedicated to tackling student loan debt in America. That discussion on the student debt crisis bore a good reminder of our common goals: "[Reducing student loan debt] is not a partisan issue," Espinoza said. "This is not a left or right issue. This is really an American issue. It’s an issue of the future of our country."
We all want what's best for our nation and neighborhood. Reducing student loan debt and enabling students to pursue their educational dreams can be the means for a successful community for us all.