Brittany Griese suffers moments of panic when she thinks about how much money she owes for college.
The 20-year-old University of Wisconsin-La Crosse student tries to keep focused on her studies, but the debt is always there — a nagging concern.
She’s hardly alone. About 67 percent of UW-L graduates had student loan debt last year.
“My parents just weren’t going to pay for college,” Griese said. “They just didn’t have the money.”
The average student loan debt at graduation from Wisconsin’s public campuses has increased dramatically over the past 30 years, along with tuition rates that have consistently outpaced inflation, University of Wisconsin System officials say.
The average UW student who borrowed to earn a bachelor’s degree last year finished school with $27,000 in student loan debt, compared with about $5,000 in debt for their equivalents 30 years ago, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. Adjusting for inflation, $5,000 in 1982 would amount to nearly $12,000 today, meaning the student debt burden has more than doubled over that time.
It’s a similar pattern at
UW-L, where students owed an average of $23,411 in 2010 — 60 percent more than students in 2000.
Branden Bell is among the majority of UW-L students who pay tuition with student loans. His parents covered some, but the rest falls to the 21-year-old computer science major.
“My parents didn’t really plan well,” he said.
Student debt has grown because tuition rates have risen, state aid is down and parents are struggling to contribute to the bills, Mark Nook, the UW System’s senior vice president of academic affairs, told the UW Board of Regents on Thursday.
He also noted that more students attending Wisconsin public universities are now taking out loans to help pay for college, 71 percent now compared to 50 percent in 1992.
As UW-L and other UW institutions lose state aid dollars, the cost of college shifts more and more onto the backs of students and their families, said Paula Knudson, UW-L dean of students.
“Access and cost is absolutely, always a concern for us,” she said.
Nook said the increased debt isn’t necessarily because students are taking longer to finish a college degree. Graduates who have $50,000 or more debt are still generally finishing their degrees within five years, he said.
He acknowledged that some students might be borrowing more than they need so they can support a higher standard of living.
“Some of our students are living a little better than they should,” Nook said. “But some of it’s also occurring because parents can’t help with their contribution.”
UW officials noted that more parents have lost jobs and seen their credit ratings and home equity plummet, so they’re less able to help out their children financially.
“Families are hurting as the economy has hit home,” Knudson said. “Often times, students will end up taking out additional loans because the family can’t help.”
The greatest burden falls on students from moderate-income families, those with a family income of about $67,000, because they receive less financial aid and have to take on greater debt. Federal aid formulas don’t require low-income families to contribute toward their children’s educations.
Susan Fischer, UW-Madison’s director of financial aid, said that Harvard University had become more affordable than California state universities.
“Soon, they’ll be cheaper than us, too,” she said.
Some have called for the federal government to increase available student aid, although when that happens, Fischer said, “families tend to borrow more.”
She noted that out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition, get out faster.
“I think their parents have a foot on their backside,” she said.
Both Bell and Griese say they worry more about classes than they do about amassing debt, though the notion of owing thousands upon thousands of dollars is almost too daunting to bear.
“If I think about it, it would scare me too much,” Bell said. “Ignorance is bliss.”
Hulking loans may be an increasingly common burden for college students, but they still need to act responsibly as they take control of their own finances, Knudson said.
For many students, higher education opens up a whole new world of forms, bills and statements. University officials do what they can to help, including some outreach to educate students about money management.
“I think they need to understand that it’s not free money,” Knudson said. “They are incurring a cost down the road.”