Central State students carry most student loan debt in nation

Only about one in four Central State University students leave the school with a degree, and those who do graduate leave with something else: more than $39,000 in federal student loan debt — the highest amount in the country for a public four-year college.

The U.S. Department of Education earlier this month unveiled the website collegescorecard.ed.gov, where students and parents can compare colleges based on several factors, including debt, what alumni earn and loan repayment rates.

A handful of area schools rank among the best in the state. Students who enroll at Wittenberg University slightly outearn Ohio State University alums, while University of Dayton alumni, 10 years after enrolling, earn a median salary of $52,300 — third-highest among state colleges.

UD officials say they aren’t surprised by the fact its graduates earn well above the national average.

“Employers say our graduates are well-prepared to succeed in their chosen careers and lead in their communities,” said Rob Durkle, associate vice president of enrollment management at UD.

The data is part of President Barack Obama’s push to increase transparency in higher education — something some colleges and universities have spent more than a decade lobbying against.

In his 2013 State of the Union Address, Obama said “colleges must do their part to keep costs down” and that this data would put pressure on schools to make necessary changes.

CSU alums struggle

Central State ranked close to the bottom in every Scorecard category, with only 20 percent of its graduates paying at least $1 of their student loan balance three years after graduation. That’s worse than the repayment rates of all local for-profit colleges.

Meanwhile, six years out, about 70 percent of Central State’s alumni earn less than $25,000.

Of the 10 public colleges with the highest levels of student debt, all are Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at New Jersey-based Seton Hall University, says Central State and other HBCUs may rank high, in part, due to accepting more students who are “independents,” thus allowed to accept more federal students loans. To file as an independent, students must be at least 24 years old or have a child.

CSU acknowledges that its students are behind in several of the metrics, however, university officials say that’s largely due to its mission and student body. Nearly 90 percent of CSU students are Pell Grant eligible, and most are minority and first generation — three groups that are less likely to be as well prepared for college.

“A large portion are low-income and first generation, they may come without knowing all the ins and outs of financial aid, and how to be successful in college,” said Stephanie Krah, vice president for students affairs and enrollment management. “They come from different backgrounds, and we work to educate them about financial literacy.”

To decrease defaults and improve student awareness, CSU President Cynthia Jackson started requiring students who receive institutional aid to attend five financial literacy workshops. The workshops cover everything from student loan repayment options to “default basics” to explaining how credit works.

“Some students, for a variety of reasons, may take them longer than four years to finish college. If you’re in college longer, you increase loans that are incurred,” Krah said.

Krah said the university is starting to require students to take at least 15 credit hours, so they will be more likely to graduate on time. The university also is raising donations to increase the size of its endowment so it can offer more aid to students.

The data release comes as Ohio Auditor of the State David Yost has a team investigating CSU. The auditor released a report this month saying the university may be letting students take classes despite owing money for tuition and fees for a year or more — possibly allowing the school to get state funding for students who shouldn’t be there.

In addition, in April CSU’s financial health deteriorated to the point that it was the first university in the state to be placed on fiscal watch.

Colleges concerned

National experts say students and parents need to be careful when comparing institutions.

“I would proceed with the earnings data with caution, and compare similar institution with similar students,” Kelchen said.

A few local colleges point out that the data includes some students who do not graduate. Also, it does not account for majors — which can have a huge sway on earnings.

Jamienne Studley, deputy under secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, told this newspaper that earnings data for degree programs at every institution will be released in the near future.

Several national college lobby groups fought against the release of some of this data, in particular, earnings data. Some institutions are worried the data will be tied to policy.

“I think some of it (the data) will (be tied to policy),” he said. “The loan repayment rate might end up replacing the default rate.”

Kelchen said it’s possible that the federal government will require institutions to keep their repayment levels above a certain percentage or lose access to federal financial aid.

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