Repaying a Debt That Society Can Ill Afford

College commencement season across America is all about achievement, dreams, hope -- and debt.

The student loan crisis in America is reaching epidemic proportions, to the tune of a trillion dollars owed by students for the privilege of pursuing an affordable higher education.

As with most complex issues, there is good news and bad. "Most students have manageable debt, and repay their loans -- a fact that is being lost in the current media coverage and policy conversations on student loans," says the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU). But, suggests NAICU, student loans are part of a "growing college affordability crisis." A briefing by the organization cites growing numbers of low-income students aspiring to college, cash-strapped middle-income families, diminished public-funding support "for all sectors of higher education" and the still-recovering economy as contributing factors to that crisis.

As the cost of college rises annually, so do the potential and reality of assuming greater financial debt to pay for those costs. Often most affected are the latecomer groups to higher education -- adults and other non-traditional students, along with first-generation college students. For them, realistic opportunity seems to be slipping away despite the availability of need-based and merit scholarships, campus work-study jobs and improved advising and orientation for such specialized groups.

Even if Congress acts to preserve lower, Stafford federal student loan interest rates (at 3.4 percent), the overall loan outlook remains troubling. During a roundtable discussion in May convened by West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the real message emerged that no viable long-term solution is at hand. Without solutions, the situation will remain "intractable," Sen. Rockefeller said, "an under-the-radar problem" that "can bring a person down in life."

A supporter of measures including public loan forgiveness, income-based repayment and enhanced student financial literacy, among other strategies, Sen. Rockefeller hosted a 90-minute session in Morgantown that focused not on rates and statistics but the real human cost of the student-loan burden. It's not an encouraging picture.

The consensus of the group, which included students, college administrators and financial counselors, was that loan debt cripples lives, not just the checkbook. Graduates delay marriage and family, choose alternate career paths, defer establishing small businesses and, no doubt worst of all, suffer deep emotional shame and guilt when they default, all for "pursuing something society wants them to do in all good faith," Sen. Rockefeller said. "Here we are at war with ourselves, hurting our country."

It can take a student 10 years to pay off his or her debt, while living in sub-standard housing and delaying needed purchases. Then he or she may confront the possibility that their spouses and children will continue the cycle, because of their own student loan debt, of putting life on hold to make the monthly payments that never seem to go away.

No one is suggesting that students should not seek education, or should dodge their repayment obligations that come with loans. For its part, NAICU says it supports solutions "that don't diminish the quality of education." But the group in Morgantown agreed with me that the whole process of student loan application and management should be more user-friendly, along with greater outreach by campuses to teach families what the impact will be once their students cross the graduation stage. As former West Virginia University President David Hardesty put it so well, "the message should be that you go through college, not (just) to college...." The process of managing your education doesn't end with commencement. You need to pay off your loans on the other end.

I am confident that colleges and universities, their professional associations and parent councils, the government, the financial community and, most of all, our constituent students and their families will continue proactive, productive discussion and advance realistic solutions not only on the loan situation but the overall higher-education affordability crisis. We need to do something now -- to focus, as President Hardesty said, on those dimensions of the problem that can be solved.

That seems to be the best way to begin to ensure that society is not crippled in a larger sense by a debt that now cripples so many, so silently, at home.

Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Bethany College and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies. Now in his 22nd year as a college president, he serves as a consultant to college presidents and boards.