by Tyler Kingkade
NEW YORK — A majority of young Americans say student debt is a major issue facing the nation, a new poll finds, and many blame colleges for the problem.
Fifty-eight percent of adults ages 18 to 24 consider rising student debt levels in the United States a “major problem,” according to survey results released Tuesday by the Harvard University Institute of Politics. Only 3 percent said it’s not an issue at all, while 22 percent called it a “minor problem.” Yet even among people who weren’t enrolled in college, 54 percent still considered student debt a major issue.
A plurality — 39 percent — blame colleges and universities for the rising amount of student debt, compared with just 10 percent who think students are at fault. Survey respondents were more likely to blame colleges for rising student debt if they were currently enrolled in school.
The cost of a college degree has increased 12-fold in the last 30 years, while having such a degree has become even more important to those seeking full-time employment. But policy experts and consumer watchdogs have increasingly flagged the wealth loss and ripple effect that the nation’s $1.2 trillion in student debt is having on the economy as a whole.
“Young people who are coming of age today understand that getting a postsecondary education is important [but] they have a lot of fear about the rising cost of higher education,” said Rory O’Sullivan, Policy and Research Director at Young Invincibles, a group that aims to represent young people in policy debates.
Matthew Segal, co-founder and head of millennial advocacy nonprofit OurTime.org, was “pleasantly surprised” to see that young adults are putting responsibility for the trend with colleges.
“People are finally realizing that the college arms race must stop if we are ever going to rein in costs,” Segal said.
Segal noted that George Washington University, for instance, is currently building a $130 million “super dorm” on campus, and students at the University of Pennsylvania are able todine at a juice bar after hitting up the golf simulator at one of the campus fitness centers. This phenomena of spending resources on extravagant secondary amenities isn’t limited to private schools, either: Iowa State University recently spent $46.2 million renovating one of two campus gyms, resulting in a facility equipped with rock walls and hot tubs, while the University of California-Davis offers swimming pools in some residence halls.
“Too many colleges are acting in the interest of building prestige over providing an affordable pathway to higher learning for their students,” Segal said.
However, 32 percent of respondents in the new survey pointed the finger at the federal government, which handles roughly 85 percent of the nation’s outstanding student debt. The U.S. Department of Education collected $42.5 billion from borrowers in fiscal year 2013 alone.
Although O’Sullivan believes there’s plenty of blame to go around, he was struck by how few placed responsibility on state governments, despite the connection between state legislative appropriations and tuition at public colleges. Only 8 percent of Harvard’s survey respondents said state governments were to blame for rising student loan debt.
A 2012 New York Federal Reserve study linked mounting tuition costsat public universities, where a majority of students get their degrees, to state budget cuts. A previous YouGov poll found most Americans believe state universities are no longer affordable.
“We invest less than we used to, per student,” O’Sullivan noted.
Young Invincibles is currently working with student groups on campuses to raise awareness of how the state budget process affects their tuition bill. O’Sullivan believes the trillion-dollar number has captured the attention of many people, but now it’s important to explain why student debt is big and “what it is we need to fix it.”
More than 7 in 10 in the Harvard poll said that their own financial circumstances were an important factor in whether or not they attended college.