Extra Credit

Higher Ed Presidents Tweet Selfie, World Goes ‘Aw’

Pay as you earn, but you still have to pay

President Barack Obama’s expansion of the “Pay As You Earn” program on Monday may have some college goers ready to pump their firsts in victory, but that excitement should be tempered because there’s a hidden gun: You still have to pay. Well, at least for 20 years.

By signing a memorandum to extend such benefits to those who borrowed from the federal government before 2007, the president is certainly helping low-income 20- and 30-year olds who are struggling to pay off their loans in the standard 10-year term.

As part of the plan, monthly payments can be reduced to 10 percent of a person’s income — which is reasonable — but paying less each month means it will take longer to pay off the loan. After 20 years, the remaining balance is altogether forgiven.

It’s bound to help millions of Americans, but it fails to address the underlying problem plaguing higher education: The cost of college has tripled in the past 30 years, causing most students to wager their entire futures on the hopes that a college education will land them a good job.

College tuition has skyrocketed since the 1970s. So has student debt, which now tops $1 trillion.

While 1,000,000,000,000 may not look like much on a computer screen, it’s about 10 times the amount of people who have ever lived on earth. Think about that for a minute.

West Virginians are not immune to loan debt even though college comes relatively cheap for in-state students compared to other states. Still, more than 50 percent of graduates are burdened with at least $26,000 in loan debt.

Those numbers aren’t likely to change anytime soon. According to the latest data compiled by the state Higher Education Policy Commission, almost 53 percent of students attending four-year public institutions in West Virginia have loans. A shade over 11 percent of those students default on their loans.

For a state with a shaky economy and limited job prospects for graduates, lingering college debt is enough to kill any prospect of achieving the American dream in the Mountain State.

College is still worth the investment though, as those who earn a degree on average earn $20,000 more each year than those who only have a high school diploma.

But, at what cost?

Paying as you go may help millions finally pay off their debt, but rethinking higher education at a federal and local level may be the only way to prevent future students from ever entering it.