Panel tackles graduate student debt

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A panel of higher education policy experts spoke about the explosion of student debt and advised students on how to pay for a graduate-level education in the Jack Morton Auditorium Wednesday afternoon.

With more than 40 percent of students burdened with an “unmanageable” amount of debt – defined as more than 8 percent of a person’s annual income – dozens of students turned out to listen.

The panel focused on advising graduate students – who are an average of $40,000 in debt. The event was co-sponsored by the Graduate School of Political Management, Rock the Vote, 18 in ’08 and Campus Progress.

Michael Dannenberg, founder and senior fellow of New America’s Education Policy Program, said the numbers of graduate students will increase during the economic crisis because “the opportunity costs of not going to school in a recession are less.”

The changing job market has already had an effect on GW’s graduate programs.

“Although increases are not consistent across all schools and programs, graduate applications to George Washington are up significantly over the same time last year,” said Kristin Williams, the University’s assistant vice president for graduate and special enrollment management.

Even with more and more students choosing to attend graduate school, questions about the explosion of student debt remain.

Tamara Draut, author of “Strapped: Why America’s 20 and 30 Somethings Can’t Get Ahead,” said that the current economic crisis has intensified trends that have been apparent over the last two decades.

“In the last 20 years, the price of tuition for community college has doubled, and the tuition for a four-year public university has nearly tripled,” Draut said.

Draut argued that public policy decisions have directly led to the rising price of higher education. The move from the primarily grant-based system of financing higher education that was in place in the ’80s, to the current majority loan-based system, has saddled millions of Americans with additional debt that did not plague their predecessors, she said.

As a consequence, Draut said “spiraling tuition costs and a move to a debt-based financing system make it all but impossible for students to move up and move ahead in life.”

Dannenberg argued that the uninformed and irrational decision-making is being exploited by what he dubbed “an unholy trinity of states, colleges, and loan companies,” which has no incentives to lower tuition rates.

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