Foon Rhee

The Numbers Crunch: California students should count their blessings, not just their loans

Students at UCLA rally Thursday in a show of solidarity with protesters at the University of Missouri. Demonstrations across the country also called for free tuition and cancellation of student debt.
Students at UCLA rally Thursday in a show of solidarity with protesters at the University of Missouri. Demonstrations across the country also called for free tuition and cancellation of student debt. Associated Press

Thousands of college students across the country marched Thursday for free tuition at public universities and cancellation of their debt – demonstrations that dovetailed into a show of solidarity with students at the University of Missouri.

It probably wouldn’t lessen their passion – or make it more pleasant to repay their loans – but California students who took part in the Million Student March should know their situation could be much worse.

Their peers in most other states are more likely to graduate with debt and to owe more money, according to the latest numbers. Nationwide, nearly 70 percent of graduating seniors in 2014 had outstanding student loans, according to The Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit advocacy group. The average debt was nearly $29,000, up 2 percent from 2013.

Among 2014 college grads in California, 55 percent had debt, which averaged about $21,400, the fourth lowest among the states. It’s still a lot – especially for those who don’t get a cushy job in Silicon Valley – but as I said, it could be worse.

California also comes out looking better in the 10-year trend. Nationally between 2004 and 2014, the average graduate’s debt ballooned by 56 percent, more than double the rate of inflation. In California, the average debt increased by 33 percent, lower than all but five states.

Students here are in better shape thanks to more generous financial aid and historically lower in-state tuition at public universities. This year, UC and CSU held the line on tuition, and the state budget added 3,250 Cal Grants and cut fees by 20 percent for those without financial aid.

Students are about to get a little help. Starting in December, federal student loans will be more closely tied to ability to pay, with monthly payments capped at 10 percent of discretionary income.

But the protesters want more, and they’re finding encouragement from presidential candidates, particularly Democrat Bernie Sanders, who is also calling for free tuition at public universities. College affordability is likely to come up at Saturday night’s Democratic debate in Iowa.

California’s public universities rank better than the national average on a host of measures, including state funding per student, instructional spending and state grants, according to a new analysis on college affordability by the Urban Institute.

Some California schools also do well in a study by ProPublica on which colleges saddle poor students with the most debt and which help them the most. Among public research universities, both UC Berkeley and UC Riverside give poor students what amounts to a 74 percent discount, ranking in the top 10 nationally. Among private research universities, Stanford offers the lowest cost in the country, picking up 94 percent of the tab.

California students can also feel a tad better that they have more information at their disposal. A state law passed this year requires public and private universities to disclose their student loan numbers and to tell students about potential state and federal aid before certifying them for higher-cost private loans.

That’s an important lesson in college, whether learning in the classroom or marching on the quad: Knowledge is power.

By the numbers

The average debt for 2014 graduates of public and private nonprofit universities, and the percentage of students graduating with debt, for selected states:

  • Utah: $18,921, 54 percent
  • Nevada: $20,211, 46 percent
  • California public: $19,476, 53 percent
  • Arizona: $22,609, 57 percent
  • Florida: $24,947, 54 percent
  • Washington: $24,804, 58 percent
  • Texas: $26,250, 59 percent
  • Oregon: $26,106, 62 percent
  • California private nonprofits: $27,493, 61 percent
  • New York: $27,822, 61 percent

Source: The Institute for College Access & Success