Pennsylvania college students rank high for debt

By Andrew Shull

Pennsylvania’s college students are some of the most indebted in the country.

According to… Pennsylvania’s college students are some of the most indebted in the country.

According to a new report, Pennsylvania students rank sixth in the country for the number of indebted college graduates and seventh for the average amount of debt incurred, which was $27,066 in 2009. This puts students “on a shaky path to their future.”

Keystone Research Center, a Harrisburg-based non-partisan and non-profit economic research organization, and Demos, a non-partisan research and advocacy organization based in New York, issued the report that details a number of issues facing the middle class in Pennsylvania along with student debt.

Stephen Herzenberg, an economist and the director of the Keystone Research Center, said that while the high cost of education and the large amount of debt is well worth it for graduates, students who don’t finish college find themselves worse off.

“There are a lot of kids who don’t finish, and then they have the debt but not the potential,” Herzenberg said.

The report also touched on the rising costs of tuition at Pennsylvania’s universities, saying that“tuition costs have increased exponentially in Pennsylvana over the past generation, more than tripling over the past 25 years.”

It was that prospect that worried Pitt senior Lauren Carlson, who still has to pay for one more year of tuition.

“Right now, as a senior and not graduating, that’s bad,” she said. “I don’t want to think about it.”

Carlson, a finance major, said she is managing her debt by working and getting a co-op for next year, but she still has loans to pay off.

She said that even if she didn’t have the support of her parents, she would still take out enough loans to pay for Pitt.

Cheaper routes such as attending a community college or a State System of Higher Education school simply aren’t options, she said. “For what I want to do, I need Pitt.”  

To make matters worse for Pennsylvania’s students, average in-state tuition at state-subsized schools in Pennsylvania has risen to almost $4,000 more than the national average for state universities.

The statistics detailed in the report came a week after Pitt students learned that their in-state tuition would increase 8.5 percent ­— $14,076 to $15,272 — which Pitt officials blamed on the reduction in state appropriations.

But one Pitt student, senior Ben Kendall, said he was neither surprised nor distressed by the statistics.

“Society reaps some benefits, but students reap the most benefits from their education,” he said.

He said he thought that the high tuition costs were fair because college students should bear the biggest burden for their education.

“Students should get cut on as much as anybody else.”  

Herzenberg disagreed, saying that the state’s funding cuts to public education wasn’t just “short sighted,” but will have a negative effect on social mobility, as well as the “American Dream.”

“Education, particularly public education, has always been a mode of upward mobility. A quality education allows you to rise from any station to any station. What’s happening is that it is becoming a vehicle for stagnation,” he said.

While Kendall agreed that education was the surest route to upward social mobility, he thought that it was possible to get a four-year degree with smaller subsidies from the government.

“Even absent of community college, it’s still possible to get a degree. You might have to go part-time, but if you don’t have kids and fall into a poverty trap, it’s possible,” Kendall said.

He argued that rising tuition was simply a matter of supply and demand, pointing to surging enrollment rates across the country, despite the rising tuition rates.

Student issues were only a small part of the report. It also discussed rising income inequality, lower union membership, fewer jobs in manufacturing and limited access to health insurance and other benefits in Pennsylvania.

Those, and other factors, have led to what Herzenberg described as “an hourglass economy,” with a few high-paying jobs at the top, low-paying jobs at the bottom and little in between.

With a few exceptions involving new technology jobs, Herzenberg said that access to the top of the hourglass is hard to find without a college degree.