The Other Student Loan Problem: Too Little Debt

Courtney Williams's picture
Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Jesse Yeh uses the University of California-Berkeley library instead of buying textbooks. He scrounges for free food at campus events and occasionally skips meals. He's stopped exercising and sleeps five to six hours per night so he can take 21 credits — a course load so heavy he had to get special permission from a dean.

The only thing he won't do: take out a student loan.

"I see a lot of my friends who took out student loans, then they graduated and because of the economy right now they still couldn't find a job," said the third-year student, whose parents both lost their jobs in 2009 and who grew up in the boom-and-bust town of Victorville, Calif., on a block with several houses in foreclosure. "The debt burden is really heavy on them."

Even as college prices and average student loan debt rise, educators in some sectors of higher education report they're also seeing plenty of students like Yeh. After watching debt cause widespread damage in their families and communities, they're determined to avoid loans no matter what.

What's surprising is this: Educators aren't sure that's always such a good thing.

Students who go take extreme steps to avoid debt at all costs, they say, may get stuck with something much more financially damaging than moderate student loan debt. They may not wind up with a college degree.

To pay for college and minimize borrowing, students are working longer hours at jobs and taking fewer credits. They're less likely to enroll full-time. They're living at home. They're "trading down" to less selective institutions with lower prices, and heading first to cheaper community colleges with plans to transfer later to four-year schools.

Those may sound like money-savers, but in fact each is a well-documented risk factor that makes students less likely to graduate.

"There's been such attention on student debt being unmanageable that current students have internalized that," said Deborah Santiago, co-founder and vice president for policy research at the group Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit advocacy group. In fact, "If you can take out a little bit of loan you're more likely to complete. If you can go to a more selective institution that gives you more resources and support, you're more likely to complete."

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