A Crisis Here, Too: Growing Student Loan Debt

 Image of Edmon Low Library at Oklahoma State University

Just because the average amount of student loan debt in Oklahoma is lower than the national average doesn’t mean there isn’t a major crisis here related to college affordability.

Oklahoma’s higher education leaders have long backed college tuition and fee increases at least partially on the premise that the state’s overall costs for a college education are significantly lower than the national average. That lower rate, it follows, would naturally translate into lower student loan debt as well.

I don’t know how many times through the years I’ve read some quote in the media by a state higher education official that goes something like this: Quit whining. Even when we raise tuition and fees, our universities remain less expensive than in other states.

That doesn’t offer much solace to an Oklahoma college senior getting ready to graduate with $30,000 or more in debt. It probably doesn’t feel to that student it’s a good deal or bargain, which gets complicated even further when you consider a particular university’s reputation.

A recent article on NewsOK.com repeats the trope. It cites a recent analysis by Experian, which offers credit reports and tracking on its online site, that shows there was an 84 percent increase in student loan debt from 2008 to 2014. According to Experian, student loan debt in the country now stands at $1.2 trillion, a record high. The average student loan debt in Oklahoma of $23,636 is lower than the national average of $29,400, according to NewsOK.com, citing the Project on Student Debt.

So begins the age-old story here. Oklahoma Chancellor Glen Johnson claims the numbers prove success. According to the NewsOK.com story, here’s Johnson’s take on the situation: “One significant area of success has been our commitment to affordability. Oklahoma’s state system of higher education is recognized as the fifth most affordable system in the country.”

Later in the story, Johnson also points out that Oklahoma’s tuition and fee increases of 5.3 percent over the last five years are lower than in most states.

Let me be clear that this isn’t a criticism of Johnson, who is merely repeating historical fact as so many others do and have done when it comes to this argument. Our colleges are cheaper here. Who can argue that point?

But one fact that gets lost in the argument over college affordability is that Oklahoma has been consistently ranked among the nation’s bottom 25 states for decades in per capita income. Sometimes, the state has been ranked in the bottom ten. Here are the rankings since 1990.

What that means, of course, is that Oklahomans, along with their access to less expensive colleges compared to other states, also have less money to go to college. It also means that college graduates here if they stay in Oklahoma will overall make less money in the workforce than graduates in other states and consequently have less money to pay down their student loan debt.

Another companion issue omitted from the argument is that Oklahoma has long had a lower number of people with at least bachelor’s degrees than the national average. How many potential students or graduates here simply can’t afford our colleges even though they are less expensive because of our low per capita income rates?

Finally, the argument that a college education is cheaper here can enable people to ignore the fact that growing student loan debt here and elsewhere is a major humanitarian crisis. Banks feast on people simply trying to get an education by doling out loans guaranteed and even molded by the federal government. It’s a great deal for the lenders, but it means a new generation of educated people is now saddled with burdensome monthly payments for years. These people will have a difficult time buying homes or simply just surviving because of their debt.

It doesn’t matter if one gets their degree here or in California or if the debt is $40,000 or $45,000. Many Oklahoma college students, along with their counterparts across the nation, are mired in student loan debt, a development that doesn’t bode well for their financial future or the nation’s financial future.