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Wednesday, Oct 10, 2012, 12:49 pm

Survey: University Officials Say Tens of Thousands of Dollars in Student Debt “Reasonable”

By Eric Murphy

Students protest against exorbitant debt while administrators remain oblivious.
(LianaAn / Flickr / Creative Commons)

A recent survey by Inside Higher Ed found a broad consensus among college admissions directors that the current extremely high burden of student debt is “reasonable,” and that “gapping”—the practice of admitting students without providing them enough aid to finance their education—is ethical.

Asked to pick what level of debt is “reasonable” for students to graduate with after four years of higher education, 64 percent of admissions directors picked a level of at least $20,000. Only 2 percent said no debt was reasonable, and these were mostly from community colleges. Zero percent of public, four-year university admissions directors thought graduating debt-free was reasonable. This is remarkable, considering many public, four-year institutions are land-grant colleges, which originally did not charge tuition.

Today, student borrowers average more than $25,000 in debt upon graduation, according to the Project on Student Debt.

Part of the problem is the practice of “gapping"--when universities acknowledge student financial need but do not provide enough aid to meet it--which 61 percent of administrators deemed ethical. Inside Higher Ed talked to Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, about the phenomenon:

The support for gapping by many admissions directors is worrisome, she said. While, in theory, gapping gives students options, she said that surveys suggest that most students don't really understand the debt they are taking on, and the consequences of some borrowing decisions. To the extent colleges are encouraging students to accept admissions offers without sufficient aid packages, "it is incumbent on the entire higher education community to communicate more clearly about costs," she said.

As debt escalates, so does resistance from students. In late September, CLASSE—one of the three major student groups that took part in the Quebec student strike which prevented tuition hikes in the province—staged a protest demanding free higher education.

In the United States, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street called Strike Debt has released a document called the Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual that provides information about how to deal with and resist debt, including studentloan debt. It also plans a Rolling Jubilee campaign that will "[buy] defaulted, charged off debt at steeply discounted prices and then [abolish] it, keeping it out of the hands of debt collectors.” (Only student debt that is not federally guaranteed can be bought up and forgiven in this manner, however.)

The survey results suggest that universities will not reform debt on their own. But it remains to be seen whether Strike Debt and its brethren can force their hand.

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