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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Student debt stirs Obama’s mention

Cameron Kittle

It’s not difficult to find examples in the Granite State of how college is becoming too financially burdensome for students and families.

Higher education’s cost problem is no more obvious than at the University of New Hampshire, where Granite State students have watched tuition balloon 85 percent over the past decade – from $7,395 in 2001 to $13,672 in 2011.

Out-of-state tuition at UNH also jumped 68 percent over the same period, from $16,465 in 2001 to $27,642 in 2011.

Those numbers don’t include other costly fees, like room and board or student athletics.

Education is sometimes overlooked in an election year, but President Barack Obama made a point to emphasize its importance in two speeches last week – first in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, then again during an appearance at the University of Michigan on Friday.

Obama said the trend must change.

“Student loan debt has now surpassed credit card debt for the first time ever,” Obama said. “Think about that. That’s inexcusable.”

The argument remains that college is a luxury not everyone can afford. But that’s not an acceptable answer, Obama said.

Rapidly increasing costs have become the norm at colleges and universities across New Hampshire, just as it has across the country.

But nowhere more than in New Hampshire are students forced to take out more loans, and thus graduate with more debt.

New Hampshire college graduates in 2010 left school with the highest debt load in the country – an average debt of $31,048, according to The Project on Student Debt. The average debt across the country was $24,000.

“Higher education is not a luxury. It’s an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford,” Obama said in his speech at Michigan. “And when I say higher education, I don’t just mean four-year colleges and universities; I also mean our community colleges and providing lifelong learning for workers who may need to retrain for jobs when the economy shifts. All those things cost money, and it’s harder and harder to afford.”

Cuts to public funding of higher education in New Hampshire has led to dramatic increases in tuition among four-year colleges and universities, as well as at community colleges.

In his State of the State address Tuesday, Gov. John Lynch described as “shortsighted” a decision by the state Legislature last year to cut aid to higher education in half, the largest single cut to a public higher education system in American history.

The Legislature also cut 15 percent from the Community College System budget, eliminated the Postsecondary Education Commission and erased all state scholarship aid by cutting the Granite Scholars Program.

Obama last week said the issue is paramount to the country’s future.

Students need access to an affordable education to pick up the skills and training they need to succeed in the 21st century job market.

“In this economy, there is no greater predictor of individual success than a good education,” he said. “College is the single most important investment you can make in your future.”

The unemployment rate for college graduates is half the national average, Obama said, and their income level is double the amount earned by Americans without a high-school diploma.

The president and his administration say they are making some improvements.

Student loan payments have been capped so that students will only have to pay 10 percent of their monthly incomes toward their loans after graduation, Obama said. He added that tens of billions of dollars will be used for grants and lower rates on loans – money that previously was given as subsidies for banks.

But universities and state legislatures must play their parts as well, Obama said.

“We are putting colleges on notice … you can’t assume that you’ll just jack up tuition every single year,” he said. “If you can’t stop tuition from going up, then the funding you get from taxpayers each year will go down. We should push colleges to do better. We should hold them accountable if they don’t.”

Working to curb the growing debt load of New Hampshire college graduates could mean federal benefits.

Obama laid out his plans for a “Race to the Top” initiative he said should help states improve college affordability. States will compete and earn federal grants if its college graduates leave school with less debt.

“Your president and your first lady were in your shoes not that long ago. We didn’t come from wealthy families,” he said. “The only reason that we were able to achieve what we were able to achieve was because we got a great education. That’s the only reason.”

The Learning Curve appears Thursdays in The Telegraph. Cameron Kittle can be reached at 594-6523 or ckittle@nashuatelegraph.com. Also check out Kittle (@Telegraph_CamK) on Twitter.