5 ways NJ could ease the college debt crunch
TRENTON — Student loans are getting some attention at the Statehouse, with a few proposals due for committee consideration Thursday and a more sweeping set of reforms ready for introduction.
An Assembly panel Thursday will consider proposals that direct the state to forgive student loans if borrowers die or suffer a total disability and to stop suspending professional and occupational licenses of borrowers who fail to repay loans.
Those practices were scrutinized in a ProPublica report this summer. But the broader issue of the increasing burden of student debt is also getting lawmakers’ attention, with a few announcing a package of legislation aimed at lessening the load:
- Creation of a new ‘readiness commission.’ Assemblyman Gary Schaer, D-Passaic, said it would be “dedicated to making sure New Jersey residents understand not only what it takes to get into college but also how to confront academic and financial challenges that lead many students to leave school without a degree, which is insult to the injury.”
- Let high school students earn 12 college credits, tuition-free. “Starting colleges with a semester worth of credits means starting with a semester less of debt,” Schaer said. “But more importantly, exposing students to and preparing them for higher education opportunities and successful outcomes.”
- Provide students with enough aid to graduate without debt if they agree to defer their enrollment in a four-year school until after they complete community college. It would be similar to the NJ STARS program but not limited to those in the top 15 percent of their graduating class. Schaer hopes to fund it largely by redirecting money for TAG grants.
- A program called ‘Succeed New Jersey’ that would forgive $6,000 in student debt a year for three years for people who work in high-demand fields.
- New income-driven repayment options for people with NJ CLASS student loans. Schaer said these include “limiting monthly payments to a percentage of discretionary income, which is a practice currently engaged upon by the federal government, discharging remaining debt after 20 years and postponing payment for those who are unemployed or underemployed.”
The ideas were developed in conjunction with Gov. Chris Christie’s higher education secretary, Rochelle Hendricks, Schaer said.
Schaer announced the package with Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, D-Essex, who chairs the Assembly Higher Education Committee.
The plan was announced in conjunction with the release of a report done by Rutgers University graduate students for New Jersey Policy Perspective that documented the impact of a decade of reduced state spending on higher education – down 27 percent when adjusted for inflation, and down 42 percent per pupil when adjusted for increases in enrollment.
The report suggested it would take a 63 percent increase in state spending on higher education, roughly a half-billion dollars annually, to return spending to its mid-1990s level. The report concedes that might not be realistic – and indeed, the new bill package doesn’t address direct aid to colleges.
“We have to have a long-term plan for how we assist our public colleges and community colleges. But we don’t have one yet,” Jasey said. “It’s something that is definitely on my long-term agenda.”
The NJPP report says that as state support for universities and colleges has dwindled, the costs shifted to students, who have significantly increased their borrowing.
Skyrocketing debt and tuition costs
Over the course of a decade, the average student loan debt in New Jersey went from around $2,000 less than the national average to around $2,500 higher than the national average, says the report.
Tuition and fees now amount to more than 12 percent of the median income for a New Jersey family of four, nearly double the share from 20 years ago.
Those costs have economic consequences, said NJPP policy analyst Brandon McKoy.
“These are a lot of students who even if they secure a degree, they’re unable to purchase a home, they’re unable to purchase a car, are really putting off starting a family,” McKoy said. “And these are all things that really keep our economy going. We live in a consumer economy.”
The report says that by 2018, New Jersey will be one of the five states with the most jobs requiring a bachelor’s degrees. A projected 56 percent of jobs will require at least some post-secondary education.
“If we’re creating this barrier for higher education that requires people really mortgaging their future in order to achieve this, we’re doing a disservice and a harm to our economy in our state as a whole,” McKoy said.
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