Opinion Columns & Blogs

Students are actually borrowing less ‘real’ money for college. Here’s the explanation

When I graduated from college in December 1981, I had taken out $13,000 in loans to help pay for my education. I had worked while in college, and also received some scholarship aid. But my family couldn’t afford to provide much financial assistance, so I borrowed to help pay for my education.

The $13,000 in loans that I had taken out by 1981 would be about $36,000 today, which is actually more than the $28,500 an average student borrows to complete college. That the average student today borrows less than I did in real terms nearly 40 years ago is perhaps surprising to many. But an analysis issued through the Brookings Institute several years ago found that the “monthly payment burden faced by student loan borrowers has stayed about the same or even lessened over the past two decades (between 1992 and 2010).”

Some media are beginning to understand that the student loan issue is more nuanced than typically reported. A recent report by NPR correctly observed that the problem is not “with borrowers who got their bachelor’s degree – who on average have about $30,000 in loans after graduation. For many of these borrowers, the loans did their job: They allowed students to go to college, get their degrees, land a better job and, ultimately, pay back these loans.”

Undergraduate students attending Mercer are actually borrowing less in absolute dollars than they were five years ago, and well below the national average of $28,500. The average Mercer undergrad in Macon borrowed $26,164 in 2014-15 to complete their college degree, while today that average has declined substantially to only $22,417. Our students receive financial aid counseling to deter them from taking out more in loans than necessary. Moreover, Mercer’s tuition has declined in real terms over the past several years. Indeed, over the past 10 years, tuition increases at Mercer have been lower than at any among a group of 20 highly regarded peer private universities in the south.

These are the facts. And they’re quite different than the narrative that is sometimes simplistically reported. The truth is that I’ve borrowed for many things over the course of my life: automobiles, homes, vacations and even appliances as a young man. But the loans I took out to help pay for college were the best investment I ever made. They made possible an intimate, empowering educational experience that changed the story of my life. They helped open doors to rewarding career opportunities. Perhaps more importantly, they’ve equipped me to live more richly and fully than otherwise would have been possible.

I’m grateful that loan programs were available to invest in me and my future – programs that made it possible for this kid from a family of modest means to attend the right college for me. There were no guarantees, of course. But the doors were opened to a world of possibilities. I’m grateful that student loan programs similarly open doors to opportunities for millions of Americans today.