Cumulatively, nearly 40 million Americans carry 1.3 trillion dollars worth of student debt and one out of every four Americans are either in delinquency or default, Susan Collins, dean of public policy, said to a full room of 100 at Weill Hall Wednesday.

At the University specifically, she noted, last year’s graduating class cumulatively owed $35,000.

In light of those numbers, Collins led a discussion with Susan Dynarski, professor of public policy, education and economics, and Rohit Chopra, senior adviser of the U.S. Department of Education, about whether there is a student debt crisis in the U.S.

According to Dynarski, University students often aren’t the ones at risk of defaulting on their student loans.

“Erase from your mind the image of a Yale graduate, NYU graduate, a Columbia graduate or even a U of M graduate — in fact, anyone who graduates with a BA is relatively unlikely to default (on their student loans),” she said.

Rather, Dynarski said the average victim of student debt crisis is a college dropout from a non-selective, community or for-profit college.

“(Those who) grew up poor, entered college late, in their 20s or 30s, to improve their job market skills,” Dynarski said.

The amounts being borrowed by those individuals are usually small, she added — typically around $5,000 to $10,000.

Thus, the “crisis” really only affects those who have a low income following graduation or an incomplete education, Dynarski said.

“In my opinion, if there is a crisis of any sorts, it’s a crisis of low earnings in our country,” she said. “We lack a safety net to handle a very large number of people who are receiving very low earnings and who cannot handle even $5,000 in debt as a result.”

Chopra said from his experiences, which he said had given him a “consumer financial market perspective, other bills and responsibilities contribute to the student debt problem and debt alone is not the issue.

“When someone is delinquent on their student loans, it is often just one side of a broader array of shocks that are happening in their life: fighting to keep paying rent, struggling to make payments on their car loan … the trauma that they’re managing is something that we always have to keep at the top of mind,” he said.

Chopra also noted various policies currently being pursued to counteract his definition of the issues with student debt, specifically citing loan repayment plans.

“This is a broad expansion of affordable loan modifications … that allow borrowers to pay a reasonable amount of income to manage those times of distress,” he said.

Along with whether a student debt crisis exists, another question for Chopra and Dynarski came both from multiple audience members and online viewers: “Why not make college free?”

Chopra said there is an effort to essentially make community college free or nearly free, arguing that if society believes getting a degree is critical for a person’s future, it needs to be readily available.

Last January, President Barack Obama proposed making two years of community college free for students who met certain requirements. The proposal is currently stalled before committee in Congress, and faces a significant uphill battle in both chambers given that both are GOP-controlled.

Chopra noted that how tuition is made free and also to whom it is made free needs to be taken into account when considering free college proposals, adding that people with lower incomes should not view cost as an impediment.

Dynarski said historically college has been free, citing nominal costs in the ’60s and ’70s. Free community college, she said, would be a return to that era.

Referring back to the discussion about the debt crisis, she added that free college would be an effective way of controlling it because many minorities and first-generation college students attend community colleges.

Public Policy graduate student Joshua Rivera, who attended the event, said he enjoyed the back-and-forth engagement between the speakers regarding a relevant topic.

“I am deeply interested in education policy and I thought that it was a wonderful event,” he said. “It’s nice to have Professor Dynarski, who’s been writing in the field very extensively in The New York Times, but also to have someone who’s going to work for the Department of Education (Chopra) give their perspective and so it was interesting and humorous to see them kind of engage in these issues and their respective roles.”

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