Tragically, the category of student loans is one of the fastest growing types of debt in the nation, second only to home mortgages, with outstanding federal student loan balances quadrupling over the last 12 years.
According to the Center for Microeconomic Data of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, student loans topped $1.2 trillion in 2015 with over 44 million borrowers. Overall, the average student debt now tops $27,000, and the largest group of people with the highest debt load (aged 30-34) totals $228 billion with an average of $33,000 per student.
Needless to say, this is a serious economic issue within our society, and it certainly hits home here in St. Louis. The idea of a high debt burden for a young person starting out in life when compared to the typical starting salary of a college graduate would in many ways be very limiting and discouraging. As a region, we all need to work to find solutions to this problem and do what we can to drastically reduce the student loan balances that exist in this nation.
Recently, Senator Claire McCaskill called a meeting with several higher education and secondary leaders to discuss this problem for the St. Louis region and asked what we could do to assist in alleviating the problem. Clearly, it was the Senator’s desire to help in any way that she could to address this issue. While each of us at the table reflected on the question and answered accordingly, I felt compelled to write about this topic in this edition of my quarterly blog, given how community colleges can be a solution to this critical problem.
Community colleges offer a very high-quality education at a very reasonable price. At St. Louis Community College, our in-district tuition is $106 per credit hour for a wide variety of transfer, career and technical programs. As in all states, community colleges receive local and/or state funding to assist in keeping tuition low, hence the absolute necessity for such revenue sources to provide each community with an affordable higher education opportunity. Without question, community colleges are the affordable pathway to the middle class.
According to the Community College Research Center (CCRC), the average tuition and fees for a full-time student at a community college in the United States totaled just $3,264 per year in 2013-14. When taking into account financial aid from all sources, the average full-time community college student received $1,550 over and above the costs of tuition and fees (to assist in covering the costs of college-related expenses). Given the low tuition offered by community colleges, students take on a relatively low debt burden. Sampled at a single point in time by CCRC researchers, only 30 percent of community college students have any student loans, and only two percent of students at community colleges default on student loans within six years of starting their studies.
To further address the student debt issue, Senator Roy Blunt was instrumental in working diligently to reinstate year-round Pell for students across the nation just this spring. This was an incredibly important piece of legislation as it will not only aid students in reducing potential debt, it will greatly increase their chances of completing a degree or certificate, as often students “stop out” or drop out completely as a result of having no financial aid in the summer months.
In addition to the above efforts, I will begin my role as chair of the Missouri Community College Association (MCCA) in July. For the Presidents’ and Chancellors’ Council, one of our key goals for the 2017-18 fiscal year is to develop cost-cutting initiatives as a higher education sector to keep our tuition low and affordable in a sustainable manner. Hence, in addition to how state and local revenues support us, the statewide community college network is doing all it can to reduce costs in an ongoing manner for the benefit of our students.
Regardless of a student’s educational objective, be it to complete an associate degree for a high-wage job in a career and technical program or for transfer to a four-year institution, community colleges offer the most affordable pathway for any student in St. Louis.
At St. Louis Community College, our vision is to be the first choice for academic excellence — leading the way in student success and community transformation. On behalf of the entire faculty and staff, we are all very committed to student success in a variety of ways, and we are THE affordable educational pathway for the region!
Jeff L. Pittman, Ph.D.
Jeff Pittman is the Chancellor of St. Louis Community College and Chair-Elect of the Missouri Community College Association