Recession created ‘perfect storm’ for sharp rise in student loan debt

Arizonans carry more than twice the student debt, per capita, than they did a decade ago, as the recession created a “perfect storm” for higher student debt, driving up enrollment at a time when costs were rising as state support was falling. (Photo by jeco/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – Arizonans came out of the recession with more than twice the student debt that they carried 10 years ago, as economic forces that came with the recession created a “perfect storm” for rising debt.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York said Arizonans carried $4,690 in student debt per capita in 2016, up from $1,930 in 2007, the year that marked the beginning of the recession.

Experts say the increase is due to state funding cuts to higher education budgets, increases in tuition and – in what may be counterintuitive for an economic recession – more people deciding to enroll in college.

“There were fewer jobs available. So you had students or older workers wanting to retrain for a job,” said Mark Huelsman, senior policy analyst at Demos, a national public policy advocacy group.

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Enrollment at Arizona’s three public universities has grown substantially since the start of the recession, from a total of 127,446 in 2008 to 171,191 in 2016, the most recent year for which numbers are available from the Arizona Board of Regents. Those figures include enrollment in online courses of study.

All three schools gained, with Arizona State University posting the biggest increase, rising from 67,082 to 98,177. University of Arizona enrollment rose from 38,057 to 43,625, while Northern Arizona University saw its numbers grow from 22,307 to 29.989, according to data from the Arizona Board of Regents.

But those students were enrolling at a time when Huelsman said families across the country had less money to spend, leaving students “unable to use some wealth that they thought they’d be able to fall back on.”

Completing the “triple whammy,” Huelsman said, was a steady increase in tuition.

In Arizona, those increases were driven in large part by state cuts to higher education funding, as state lawmakers struggled to balance a budget hammered by the recession.

A recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said state support in Arizona for higher education fell from $8,827 per student in 2007 to just $5,867 per student last year, still one of the steepest drops in the country despite a recent slight uptick in state support. Arizona funding to public universities rose 4.25 percent in 2016, the first increase since the start of the recession, according to the center.

“What we see in Arizona, I think, and what we’ve seen right across the country is that during the recession states reduce their expenditures especially on a per pupil basis,” said Barmak Nassirian, the director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in Washington.

Nassirian said the trend is a common one. He considers the decline in state funds to be the driving force behind rising tuition and in turn, deepening student debt.

The Federal Reserve numbers include all student debt held by Arizona residents, which includes debt racked up at schools outside the state. But experts say other states saw similar increases in tuition – and similar increases in student debt.

Nationally, according to the Federal Reserve data, student debt rose from $1,970 in 2007 to $4,920 in 2016, a 150 percent increase compared to Arizona’s 137 percent increase over the same period.

Nassirian is optimistic that higher levels of state support can help reverse the rise in student debt levels across the country. He points out that Arizona in particular has an obligation to make college affordable, pointing to a provision in the state Constitution.

“The state of Arizona actually has a constitutional provision that guarantees a free or as low a cost as practicable in terms of tuition at its public institutions,” he said.