Feb 13

Debt many times comes with a college education, Democrats say

niacc-snow-3DES MOINES – Democratics in the Iowa legislature this week pointed out the benefits of a community college education and the importance of student loans to those seeking enlightenment.

Community colleges are among the most affordable options for students seeking to further their education and training, yet tuition and living costs remain out of reach for many Iowa families. These barriers are greatest for working-class students who, without financial aid, may not be able to enroll at all.

Student loans provide an important source of financial aid, but students often have difficulty repaying their debts. Members of the Legislature’s Education Budget Committee heard from experts who’ve studied the situation. Their report, A Closer Look at the Trillion: Borrowing, Repayment and Default at Iowa’s Community Colleges, examines community college student borrowing and repayment.

Iowa’s community colleges charge relatively high tuition and fees compared to the national average of $3,347. Over the past decade, average tuition rose from $97 per semester hour to more than $145 per semester hour. That’s an annual increase of about 4.6 percent. With the average cost of enrollment (tuition and mandatory fees) at $157.78 per credit, a full-time student at one of Iowa’s 15 community colleges could expect to pay between $4,110 and $5,370 for an academic year.

But those are not the only costs students face. Rent, food, books, supplies and transportation all make college even more expensive. About 45 percent of Iowa’s community college students borrow—well above the national average of 17 percent—and most Iowa community colleges have default rates above the national average as well.

According to data, 27,675 students began repaying their loans during the 2011 federal fiscal year. The average student had borrowed $8,287 to attend community college. Through January 2015, students who borrow the least were the most likely to default.

It appears that students who need the most support in reaching their degree goals also need the most guidance in managing their student debt. In Iowa, 60 percent of those who defaulted on their community college student loans earned fewer than 15 credits, and nearly 90 percent of defaulters did not earn a credential.

The Legislature has approved programs to help, such as PACE and GAP, which assist non-traditional students while offering flexibility for life circumstances. These programs keep students on a path to educational and career success by offering guidance and helping with things like child care, personal finance and transportation.

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