Degree of Debt: Tuition-aid gap in public colleges leading to decades of debt

SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) - In our "Degree of Debt" series of investigative reports, we've been showing you the crushing impact of student loan debt that can last for years and years for students attending for-profit colleges.

But the struggle has also long been felt by public university students and financial aid leaders say state and national trends aren't making it any easier.

45-year-old Ben Moss of Shreveport can attest to that.

"Just the feeling," said  Moss. "The outside may look OK but....I'm just tired."

That's because even though he has a Bachelor's Degree in Art, a job as a graphic designer and is one hour of credit shy of his Master's Degree, he still can't escape the shadow of his student loan debt.

"I think it's in the neighborhood of $83,000."

Moss said he accrued that by taking out $30,000 at Northwestern State in Natchitoches and then more than doubling that while pursuing his MLA in Animation and Visual Effects at LSU-Shreveport.

He said he needed that much back then because he had no other option.

"I had the highest academic scholarship that Northwestern offered. It still wasn't enough to cover everything," said Moss.

Lisa Pickering has been LSU-Shreveport's Assistant Director of Financial Aid for eight years but has been working in the field of financial aid for the last 18.

She says national and state trends show a bigger gap between tuition and aid.

"Federal aid doesn't seem to be able to keep up with the rising cost of tuition," Pickering reported.

"We've gotten very little increases on the National Pell Grant, very little increase in student loan funds and state grants and of course, as you know, TOPS has been cut this past year."

To give an example, Pickering referenced LSUS tuition vs. the loans that students can take out.

"Average tuition here at LSU-Shreveport for the Fall Semester is right at $3,600 and another $500 for books. A student could borrow for the semester a maximum of $2,750 and so that does leave a sizable gap."

Pickering said that's bearing in mind that the average LSUS student's debt is actually lower than the national average.

"For the nation, it's right at $29,000. LSUS borrowers are borrowing right at $28,000 when they graduate."

Which then leads to repayment plans, which Moss said can be brutal even under his income-adjusted plan.

"I only make $45,000 a year and that's just not enough if you have other debt and I'm a single parent. I have two daughters, 8 and 11."

"They somehow think I can afford $400 a month but there's just...there's no way."

At the moment, Moss is in forbearance which allows a debtor to stop making payments or reduce monthly payments for up to 12 months. However, his forbearance is up at the end of this year.

Failure to make the payments means defaulting on your loan which Pickering reports can lead to dire consequences in multiple facets of the debtor's life.

"They can garnish your wages. They can hold your federal income tax return," she warned. "Your doctor or your teacher certification or a nursing license, they can pull your state license if you have a defaulted loan. So it's serious."

The most recent numbers from the U.S. Department of Education on the number of local student loan debtors date back to Fiscal Year 2013.

Here is a breakdown of several local colleges and universities:

Louisiana State University at Shreveport
Default Rate: 9.4%
Number of Borrowers in Default: 93
Number of Borrowers in Repayment: 987

Northwestern State University
Default Rate: 10.7%
Number of Borrowers in Default: 240
Number of Borrowers in Repayment: 2,225

Bossier Parish Community College
Default Rate: 22.8%
Number of Borrowers in Default: 507
Number of Borrowers in Repayment: 2,220

Centenary College
Default Rate: 7.7%
Number of Borrowers in Default: 17
Number of Borrowers in Repayment: 220

Southern University at Shreveport - Bossier City
Default Rate: 17.6%
Number of Borrowers in Default: 181
Number of Borrowers in Repayment: 1,024

Grambling State University
Default Rate: 17.7%
Number of Borrowers in Default: 300
Number of Borrowers in Repayment: 1,689

Pickering's advice to future college students is knowing what they need to borrow.

"I think a lot of it is lack of information and understanding, really, what they've gotten themselves into," she said. "We offer the student the maximum loan amount. Most schools will because we don't know what that student needs."

Pickering said LSUS undergrads supported by their parents can take out a lifetime student loan of up to $31,000. Undergrads independent of their parents can take out a lifetime loan of more than $157,000. Grad students can borrow up to $138,500 and medical students can borrow up to $224,000.

"A lot of them will just take it because 'Oh, Hey, I've got all this money in my account' and they end up borrowing more than what they actually need," said Pickering.

"You take loans out to go to college to get a job to just pay those loans back. It doesn't make much sense. It's a zero-sum game," Moss said.

Moss said this entire ordeal has actually made him regret college.

"I haven't been able to buy a house because of it," he said. "I think I would have perhaps taken a slower pace in school, taken a semester off and worked, built up money, gone back, back and forth like that."

Moss said he doesn't want to discourage anyone from going to college. Rather, he would offer words of caution and ask that changes be made leading to more flexibility in repayment plans.

"I would never tell anybody to just forget school and not try to advance yourself, but just really consider how it will affect your future."

Moss said he'll keep going and earn his Master's Degree and continue to work to support his children even though he believes this debt will hang over him forever.

"I'll die before it's paid off. That's....that's just the reality," he said.

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