Loan defaults hit Columbia

By Editorial Board

As the unemployment rate hovers around 9 percent and more students graduate each year with an enormous burden of loan debt and no prospective career opportunities, default rates on these loans have steadily risen. For the first time, total student loan debt surpassed consumer credit card debt, reaching nearly $1 trillion. Occupy Wall Street has brought the issue to center stage, demanding that the U.S. government forgive all student debt.

While this is not an option in today’s climate of austerity, something needs to be done. Students have a six-month grace period before they have to start paying back loans, but given the current economic straits, finding a job often takes longer than that. The average national default rate for private, not-for-profit universities stood at 4.6 percent in 2009—the most recent year with available data—but not all schools are affected equally.

Columbia students have felt the pain of loan default more than their peers at other private universities in Chicago. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Columbia’s default rate rose from 6 percent in 2007 to 7.4 percent in 2009. By comparison, the University of Chicago had a default rate of 1.1 percent; DePaul University, 2.4 percent; Loyola University, 3.5 percent; and Robert Morris University, 5.8 percent. Only the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, another liberal arts college, had a comparable rate to Columbia at 6.9 percent.

The correlation between the data is clear: Universities that specialize in degrees in professional industries such as health care, law and business have lower default rates. Another way to look at it: The more traditional the school, the lower its default rate. That isn’t to say that Columbia students shouldn’t be proud of their college. But the fact is, many students major in artistic fields such as theatre, film and fine art that don’t require a degree. These specialties are extremely competitive and don’t offer the same income base.

It isn’t all gloom and doom, though. On Oct. 25, President Barack Obama announced an executive order that would accelerate by two years the kicking in of a law that would reduce the maximum payments on student loans from 15 to 10 percent. Remaining debt would be forgiven after 20 years instead of 25. These steps would take effect in 2012 instead of 2014, keeping many students above water.

No one should expect any major relief for students while Republicans hold the House of Representatives. But these small measures the president implemented are a good start toward easing the burden for recent graduates. The economy will never recover if millions of graduates spend all of their money repaying loans instead of stimulating consumerism.

See next week’s editorial for more coverage on the student loan crisis. For more information on this

issue, see “The new lost generation,” Pg. 6.