In debt and underfunded, Pa.’s student debt crisis is no surprise | Thursday Morning Coffee

The total outstanding student debt in Pa. shot up from $19B in 2003 to $76B today, according to new research

By: - September 15, 2022 6:17 am

Currently, the total outstanding federal student loan debt is $1.7 trillion (Getty Images/The Conversation).

President Joe Biden’s announcement last month that the administration will forgive some of the student loan debt carried by millions of current and former federal borrowers provoked fresh debate over the spiraling cost of higher education.

Now, one progressive think-tank in Harrisburg is arguing in a new report that it’s also time for a fresh look at how Pennsylvania pays for higher education, concluding that years of underfunding have forced public universities to raise prices, driving up student debt.

“We want our young people to go to college, but we are loading them down with crushing amounts of debt,” Diana Polson, of the Keystone Research Center, said in a statement accompanying the new research. “This is no way of setting our young people, or any of us, up for success.”

(Photo via Pittsburgh City Paper).

The report draws through-lines between public support for education funding and the rising cost of college and increasing student debt, finding, for instance, that Pennsylvania ranks 47th in the nation for its per-capita investment in higher education — $143, compared to the national average of $288 per capita.

Public funding for higher education dropped from $2.5 billion in 2008-09 (in inflation-adjusted 2021 dollars) to $1.9 billion in 2011-12 and has remained stable since then, according to the research.

And while the state’s median income has grown by just 13 percent since 2002-03, “the cost of public college has increased by 47 percent, and the cost of private college has increased by 43 percent, which makes higher education a growing financial strain for families across the Commonwealth,” according to the report.

In 2020-21, the cost of one year of a public college education consumed 41 percent of the average Pennsylvanian’s household income. For private colleges, it is more than three-quarters (77 percent) of the median household income in the state, the research showed.

Temple University’s campus in Philadelphia (Philadelphia Tribune photo)

That, in turn, has led to some pretty grim student debt figures.

According to the report: 

  • “More than 2 million current and former students currently have outstanding college loans in the state of Pennsylvania.
  • “In Pennsylvania, total student loan debt has increased 4 times what was owed in 2003 — from $19 billion to $76 billion (inflation-adjusted).
  • “Pennsylvania ranks sixth highest in the nation for the percentage of 2020 college graduates graduating with debt (64 percent).
  • “Because of our state’s high tuition costs, in 2020 Pennsylvania graduates had the third-highest student loan debt in the nation, behind only New Hampshire and Delaware. Graduates in 2020 left college with an average debt of $39,375,” and
  • “A greater share of young people are student-debt-burdened than middle age or older people, but all age cohorts are impacted. Fifty-four percent of younger people (aged 18-34) in Pennsylvania with a credit record had student loan debt in March of 2021, compared to the national average of 42 percent.”

Biden’s student debt relief announcement “brought the issue of student debt to the forefront and his plan begins to address this crisis in Pennsylvania,” Polson said.

“But, more can be done to address the problems of student debt and high costs of college. Access to higher education and strong workforce programs benefits all of us in Pennsylvania and should be publicly supported,” Polson concluded.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.