Debt threat to public spirited

August 2, 1996

A huge increase in the number of United States graduate students borrowing money to pay for their education, has led to fears that costly loan repayments will further thin the ranks of those willing to take low-salaried public-service jobs.

Graduate student borrowing has risen almost 75 per cent in the past two years to nearly $8 billion annually, according to a new survey. The number of borrowers grew from 600,000 to a million during the same period. Rising tuition and living costs and easier access to federally subsidised student loans are the source of the problem.

"We're mortgaging the futures of these students by requiring so many more to actually come in and borrow," said Ted Freeman, president of the Education Resources Institute, one of two organisations that conducted the study. "We're a nation of debt, and this is just adding fuel to that fire. At some point, we have to look at this seriously, and we think now is the time."

Education experts say increased debt could eventually discourage students from entering careers in fields such as law and medicine and lead to higher default rates and reduced consumer spending.

They say newly trained but heavily indebted doctors and lawyers will be unable to accept low-paid public-interest jobs in medical clinics or at legal agencies that represent low-income or indigent defendants.

"Any doctor who wants to go into the inner city and look after people who desperately need health care is going to know that possibility is going to be eliminated because they're going to have too much debt," said Senator Edward Kennedy, who wants more direct government aid to education. "This is having a real impact not only on individual students, but on society as a whole."

By the time they receive their degrees, dental students owe an average of $68,000, medical students $64,000 and law students $40,000, according to the survey. That means new attorneys in low-salaried public defender jobs must spend a quarter of their monthly incomes on repaying their loans.

Low-income and minority students are borrowing at higher rates than any other group. Seventy-seven per cent of professional and graduate students with incomes below $10,000 take out loans, compared with 58 per cent of those who earn above $10,000. Sixty-two per cent of black students and 60 per cent of Hispanic students borrow, compared with 54 per cent of whites.

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