U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander Thursday said that college is more affordable than most students think, arguing that “perspective” was necessary in the discussion over whether overborrowing by college students is a serious problem.
Senator Alexander said, “I don’t think I’ve ever run into anybody who said it’s pretty easy to pay for college. My experience is probably like everybody else’s: I had no money, so I had two scholarships and five jobs to try to make my way through. But college is more affordable than most students think.”
Senator Alexander, in a hearing Thursday of the Senate education committee where he is the senior Republican, explained that about 40 percent of college students “attend community colleges where the average tuition and fees are under $3,300. Those students receive an average of $4,800 in grants and scholarships, so that the average community college student in America is receiving about $1,500 more in grants and scholarships than it costs in tuition and fees. In fact, Governor Haslam is working to advertise that in our state so that he can encourage more people to go to college. Another 37 percent of college students attend public four-year universities. The average in-state tuition and fees is about $8,900, and those students receive on average $5,800 in grants and scholarships, leaving them to pay $3,100 on average, in tuition and fees.”
Senator Alexander said that, according to the New York Federal Reserve, at the end of 2012, “Forty percent of borrowers had [student loan] debt of less than $10,000; 70 percent had a debt of less than $25,000; and less than four percent had a debt of more than $100,000.”
Adding further context to those figures, Senator Alexander cited the College Board’s finding that the average college graduate “earns more than a million dollars more over a lifetime” than those without college degrees.
The senator continued: “It’s important for students to know as they think about going to college that it can be affordable and most students don’t have to borrow too much money if they borrow wisely.”
Senator Alexander, a former president of the University of Tennessee and U.S. education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, expressed interest in studying further what he believes to be the real problem: “An Inspector General’s report from the U.S. Department of Education warns that some students borrow excessively for personal expenses not related to their education. That is a growing phenomenon. So, overborrowing may be partly the result of government policy and I think in future hearings we should talk about various ways that have been suggested to limit the overborrowing that saddles some students with too much debt, such as the current practice of allowing students who are enrolled part-time to take out as much in federal loans as a full-time student, or perhaps we should provide colleges with the authority to set some borrowing limits. These are things we will have to discuss.”
Thursday’s hearing was the eighth in a series of hearings the committee is holding on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.