Why we should all be terrified of student loans | Editorial

By Star-Ledger Editorial Board
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on September 09, 2016

How do we make a degree more affordable for students at schools like Essex County College?

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It's back-to-school time again — and time to remind everyone of the disgraceful financial situation that New Jersey public colleges and students are stuck in. Again.

A fresh report from the think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective and Rutgers, a package of bills introduced in the state Assembly and a news conference by gubernatorial hopeful Phil Murphy did just that this week.

It's not pretty. Plummeting state investment, high tuition and hefty student loans: On all three, New Jersey is worse than the national average.

Our state has slashed funding for higher education by nearly a quarter since 2008, leaving schools to raise tuition and fees, families to bear a higher cost burden and students to be shackled with five- or six-figure debts.

They are mortgaging their futures, unable to afford a home, buy a car or start a family. Jobs that require a college degree were the first to recover after the recession, which shows why it's so essential for middle class survival — and our state's economy.

But while many states are now starting to reverse course and increase higher ed funding, New Jersey is still moving in the wrong direction. We are one of just 11 states where per-student funding fell from 2015 to 2016.

Meanwhile, just two years from now, we'll be one of the top five states with the largest portion of job openings requiring bachelor degrees, the newest NJPP-Rutgers report calculates. As many as 56 percent of all jobs in this state will require at least some post-high school education.

Think of our economy. The unsustainable student debt, the increase in college drop-outs and ill-prepared workforce: This is the price we pay for irresponsible budgeting. New Jersey needs to get control of its fiscal crisis, and in the meantime, do everything it can to staunch the higher ed bleeding.

Five Assembly proposals introduced Thursday by Democrats Gary Schaer and Mila Jasey look promising. They include grants to help students with tuition and loans, income-adjusted loan re-payments, a new program for high school students to earn college credits for free and a commission to study college readiness — because what's even worse than graduating with enormous debt? The debt without the degree.

What higher ed needs above all, of course, is more funding. But can we afford this right now? No — not without the political will for creative solutions, like taxing millionaires or legalized marijuana, or allowing students to pledge a percentage of their future salary in exchange for free tuition.

Trimming benefits for public workers is critical, too, along with scaling back excess business subsidies and tax breaks.

Good ideas have flopped in the past, and times are tight. But we've still got to make this a major priority.

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