Kids & Money

Expert discusses the rising cost of college and student loan debt

The majority of college students borrow and graduate with an average debt of more than $29,000.
The majority of college students borrow and graduate with an average debt of more than $29,000. The Associated Press

Mark Kantrowitz grew up in Boston, was a star high school math student and won big college scholarships. He received degrees from two of the nation’s most prestigious colleges and had career options.

He chose higher education, specifically making it his life’s mission to deliver practical information, advice and resource tools so the college selection process would be easier for students and parents.

“There’s a good feeling that comes with helping people pursue a college education,” Kantrowitz said.

It’s challenging — perhaps now more than ever — for many families struggling with stagnant incomes to save enough to cover rising tuition bills. Consider that the majority of college students borrow and graduate with an average debt of more than $29,000.

Kantrowitz, who helped create the FinAid.org and Fastweb.com college financial aid and scholarship websites, is now the senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors.com, also an online financial aid resource site.

He was in Kansas City recently for a conference on college savings plans, and I spoke with him about the rising cost of college and student loan debt. Here are his thoughts on the following questions, edited and condensed:

▪ How did college costs become increasingly unaffordable for so many?

“It’s a long-term trend that’s been going on for decades,” Kantrowitz said.

“Colleges have been facing rising costs for equipment, technology, energy, staff, buildings … these are all cost areas that are increasing faster than the inflation rate. These are structural costs. There’s very little cutting that can be done.”

At the same time, federal and state government investment in higher education has not kept pace.

“That has consequences as more of the burden is being placed on families,” Kantrowitz said.

▪ What can parents do to stem the tide of rising college costs?

This may seem elementary, but Kantrowitz said parents aren’t saving enough. They should be saving to cover at least one-third of expected future college costs, but they are socking away only about a semester’s worth.

“Every dollar you save is a dollar less that you have to borrow. Even if you’re saving very late in the game.”

Parents also need to carefully assess what is a reasonable amount of debt they, or their student, can afford to take on to pay for college.

▪ Is online education an answer to controlling college costs?

“There’s been a lot of hype about it, but it’s not the substitute yet for brick-and-mortar classrooms.”

Traditional classrooms offer the opportunity for more of the interaction that enhances learning between teacher and student and between student and student.

▪ What can we expect to hear about college costs during the 2016 presidential campaign?

“It will be a hot topic.”

Partly to appeal to college-age voters, candidates from both parties are already pushing ideas on how to reduce debt burdens. Those proposals include pumping more federal dollars into public universities to cover state budget cuts and eliminating undergraduate tuition and textbook costs for many students.

However, what Kantrowitz would like to hear “is more money for grants” that would go to students demonstrating financial need.

▪ Where could the grant money come from?

“Take half of a percent from military spending. The federal government has an open checkbook for military spending. It’s just a higher priority” than higher education.

▪ Are you optimistic about the future?

“It will take another decade or two before we turn it around.”

In the meantime, other nations are catching up in terms of investing in higher education, especially in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

“Still, we have the best education system in the world. It’s ours to lose.”

To reach Steve Rosen, call 816-234-4879 or send email to srosen@kcstar.com.

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