Student debt major issue, expert says

Story by Alex Zank

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Student loans have played an important role in junior Charlie Erickson’s decision making.

“I was at Milwaukee for architecture and it’s a seven- or eight-year program,” Erickson said. “One of my friends (in the program) got a job in Chicago. She’s making something around $35 to $40,000 a year, entry level … She is working more than 60 hours a week. I make more as a server.”

He decided to change his major because he worried his future career would not provide enough income to pay off his student loans.

His friend’s story along with the student loan debt he had to worry about made him re-think his career choice; he is now studying public relations and advertising.

Erickson is like many other students attending college who are forced to make life decisions based in part on student loans.

The main issue, according to Eau Claire’s Director of Financial Aid Kathleen Sahlhoff, is the sheer size of student loan debt. She said there is a larger quantity of federal student loans than there have ever been.

Sahlhoff said the amount of student loan debt is now larger than credit card debt.

What is being dealt with in Congress, however, is a little more targeted than the subject of student loans as a whole, she said.

“What’s being discussed right at the moment is the amount of interest that students are going to be paying on one kind of federal student loan,” Sahlhoff said.

The interest rate on subsidized loans is currently 3.4 percent, but is set to double on July 1. There is a rare bipartisan agreement on the need to prevent this increase, according to Sahlhoff, but the parties are split on how to fund it.

Republicans want to cut part of the new healthcare law in order to pay for keeping the rate down, while Democrats favor increasing taxes on high-income earners or oil companies.

Beyond the current political battle of the subject still lies the fact that more students are taking out loans than ever. Sahlhoff partly attributes the increase in the amount of loans to the way the government both at the federal and state level are providing financial aid.

“At a national level we (used to have) a goal of funding college expenses for students who needed help to go to school with a triad approach,” she said. This triad approach consisted of an equal focus on grants, loans and work experience.

“We’ve lost that balance that used to be there, and now the vast majority of increases in aid that we see is all through the loan programs.”

As a result of the increased emphasis on the loan aspect, as well as a dramatic decrease in state funding to higher education, Sahlhoff said that students and their families are picking up more of the costs than ever.

“Fifteen years ago the students coming to UW-Eau Claire were subsidized at (about) 67 percent of their costs,” she said. “And now that’s down to more like 27 percent.”

Freshman Jessica Sorensen said investment in education and making college more affordable should be a priority. This includes keeping interest rates for federal loans from doubling.

“Education is so important,” Sorenson said. “If they increase the interest rates by too much, you don’t know how it is going to affect people.

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