Who Pays for the Student-Loan Crisis?

In the UNCF chief's first column for us, he hopes that Obama keeps his pledge on college costs.

Members of the Morehouse College 2002 graduating class (Erik Lesser/Getty Images)

But rhetoric and patchwork programs don’t add up to a comprehensive strategy. And a crisis demands a strategy. 

Organizations like UNCF can help. But the crisis is far bigger than even our 13,000 scholarships every year worth more than $100 million can address. The Parent PLUS Loans program alone awarded 1 million loans a year, worth $10 billion. Total student-loan debt is approaching $1 trillion, exceeding credit card debt. We teetered on the brink of the fiscal cliff over less.

If President Obama is serious about increasing the number of American college graduates, and we know he is, he needs to treat the college-financing crisis just as seriously.

Our new strategy will need to be innovative. It also has to be disruptive, in the good sense of changing the dynamics that are pricing millions of Americans out of college. The GI Bill was an example of innovative disruption, sending more than 2 million Americans to college and more than 6 million to training — and fueling the country’s postwar economic boom. The Obama administration’s K-12 policy has been a model of disruptive innovation, providing incentives for public schools to do better instead of rewarding them whether they succeed or fail. 

The particular components of a comprehensive new college-finance strategy ought to be the product of people in and out of the administration. But it has to be calculated to enable college attendance and graduation for the number of low-income students — many of them students of color — that the country’s employers will need. And it must avoid saddling students and families with mountains of debt and trapping yet another generation in a student-loan spiral. It should encourage even low-income parents to save for college, not only to pay college expenses but also because college attendance rates are four to seven times as high for students with college savings accounts.

Responding to the crisis in financing college education won’t be free, or even cheap. But in the 21st-century economy, supporting college isn’t an expense but an investment, an investment in better futures for students and for all of us. It is an investment in a new generation of teachers, scientists, business executives, doctors and nurses and civic leaders. It is an investment in the communities whose schools and streets will be funded by the taxes that college-educated workers earn. And it is an investment in an economy that offers a college-educated workforce to employers around the country and the world.

The Obama administration’s K-12 education strategy is a boon to the nation. But it is also a promise: a promise that as administration-driven school reform moves more and more toward college-ready high school graduation, the country will not abandon millions of these freshly minted high school graduates short of the college education that the economy demands.

It is a promise that President Obama — and the country — cannot afford to break.

Michael Lomax is president and CEO of United Negro College Fund. He is a contributing editor for The Root.

If you need more information about programs available to help families finance college education, please send your questions to Dr. Lomax at therootstaff@theroot.com.

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