As topic gains prominence on presidential campaign trail, local experts discuss impact of student loan debt

Rep. Sharice Davids led a roundtable discussion on student loan debt Monday afternoon at Johnson County Community College.

Tackling the issue of a growing student loan debt nationwide requires a holistic approach to raising awareness about jobs and financial opportunities, said several panelists at a roundtable discussion convened by Rep. Sharice Davids Monday afternoon.

It also requires starting early in a student’s education — before they start thinking about college — and connecting resources to families.

Rep. Sharice Davids

In the roundtable discussion at Johnson County Community College, Davids invited five panelists to talk about the causes and impact of student loan debt on students, families and communities. They wrapped up the discussion with ways to tackle the issue.

There are more than 44 million borrowers who collectively owe $1.5 trillion in student loan debt in the U.S., according to Make Lemonade. Davids called the statistic “staggering,” and one that affects students’ post-graduate decisions on housing, career and family.

“I think a lot of people might already know this, but it’s definitely a personal issue for me,” Davids said. “I still have a pretty hefty amount of student loan debt myself.

“Don’t worry, I have a full-time job now,” she joked. “But I’m still paying off student loan debt, and I don’t want people in our country to continue to face this issue.”

Panelists included:

  • Michael Cozart, director of TRiO Student Support Services at Kansas City Kansas Community College
  • Dr. Lori Spoozak, gynecologic oncologist and palliative medicine doctor at the University of Kansas Medical Center
  • Ann Brandau-Murguia, member of Kansas Board of Regents and Wyandotte County commissioner
  • Donna Ginther, professor of economics and director of the Institute for Policy & Social Research at the University of Kansas
  • Andy Fogel, financial aid supervisor at Johnson County Community College

Causes of student loan debt

Michael Cozart, director of TRiO Student Support Services at Kansas City Kansas Community College

The number one factor driving up student loan debt is — and no one is surprised about this — the high price of college, including tuition, housing and other college-related costs. Grants and scholarships mitigate some costs, but there’s often a shortfall.

Plus, Kansas doesn’t have programs that allow students keeping up good grades to get free tuition at trade schools and community colleges as seen in Missouri (A+ Scholarship) or Oklahoma (Oklahoma’s Promise).

The panelists identified several other causes of student loan debt. States across the country are cutting back higher education funding, pushing the financial burden on students who end up taking out higher loans. First-generation college students who lack a support system at home are already at a disadvantage when making decisions on student loans.

Another big factor is “outsiderness”: Ultimately, students who aren’t adequately prepared for the culture of college — who don’t have a sense of belonging — are less likely to succeed.

“Research shows that students with debt of more than $10,000 are less likely to graduate as financial pressures mount,” Brandau-Murguia said. “The number one reason for kids to drop out or leave school is a lack of a sense of belongingness. Very sad to me, when you think about it. That largely is due to financial constraints, their ability to participate and be involved in certain things.”

Impacts of student loan debt

Donna Ginther, professor of economics and director of the Institute for Policy & Social Research at the University of Kansas

Studies show that as student debt increases, it subsequently decreases the likelihood that students start families and buy houses, which impacts economic growth of a community, Ginther said. Vice versa: Programs that provide relief for student debt cause “spillover” effects that stimulate economic growth.

There’s also the issue that credits are not transferring over from community colleges to four-year institutions, which is a waste of their credit hours.

Brandau-Murguia pointed out that when the state government looked at unemployment in Kansas, it found that 70,000 jobs needed to be filled and there were 30,000 unemployed. The problem was connecting labor to skills needed for many of those jobs which require a technical certificate that could be earned at a technical school or community college.

Starting early to educate on opportunities

Ann Brandau-Murguia, member of Kansas Board of Regents and Wyandotte County commissioner, said the Kansas Board of Regents has made steps toward re-investing in higher education which would lower college costs and reduce debt.

Investing in education as early as kindergarten to help students prepare for high school and become college ready, Cozart said.

Ginther suggested adopting income-contingent student loan programs that would allow students to pay back debt based on how much money they make.

Fogel said students need more guidance on loans so they don’t take on more debt than necessary.

Ultimately, several of the panelists recommended taking a holistic approach to the student loan debt issue by recognizing the spillover effects of the college debt experience. In other words, resolving the issue would kickstart the economy because students could focus on their career, family and home, instead of their mounting college debt.