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Democrats push for debt-free college
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Democrats push for debt-free college

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Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter says it’s time to start a conversation about South Carolina students’ higher education debt.

"The debt divide can't be overlooked for black students as it is even more of an issue than it is for others," the Orangeburg Democrat said during a national teleconference this week.

Student debt levels are unacceptable, she said. "Four in five black graduates have to borrow to help pay for college."

Cobb-Hunter has introduced a resolution in the South Carolina House asking Congress to ensure students have access to debt-free higher education at public colleges and universities.

While less than two-thirds of white graduates from public schools borrow to pay for their education, four-fifths of black graduates borrow, she said.

The debt is “feeding into the brain drain where people are leaving this state so they can secure employment to pay down debt,” Cobb-Hunter said.

"South Carolina can't afford to have graduates leaving to find meaningful employment," she said during the call, which was hosted by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

The resolutions proposed by Cobb-Hunter and fellow Democrats in ten states assert that a well-educated workforce is essential to the country and that "public investment in higher education pays off."

It says the G.I. Bill resulted in "a 7-to-1 return on investment for our national economy and that workers with college degrees earn more money, pay more taxes and rely less on government services."

A debt-free education can be achieved through a variety of ways, including more federal aid to the states, more aid to students and innovations that reduce college costs, Cobb-Hunter said.

The amount of debt that students are taking on to earn a four-year degree continues to inch up, with the Class of 2014 carrying an average $28,950 per-graduate burden. That’s up 2 percent from the previous year, according to a report from The Institute for College Access & Success.

The average debt for public and private non-profit institutions in South Carolina was $29,163, the report said.

The TICAS report says in 2014, the total cost of attendance for a South Carolina State University student was $26,244 a year. About 70 percent of the students received Pell grants or federal aid, the report states.

The same report says Claflin University had a total cost of attendance for the same year of $32,300. About 68 percent of students received a Pell grant that year, according to the TICAS.

At all schools, 39 percent of black borrowers drop out of college, compared to 29 percent of white borrowers.

TICAS says over the past decade, the average debt load has jumped 56 percent, or more than twice the 25 percent rise in inflation.

The authors of the TICAS report admit the numbers are limited. Debt levels are voluntarily reported by colleges and are not verified by outside sources. In many ways the accuracy of each state's average debt load depends on how many of the colleges in the state reported information.

Contact the writer: gzaleski@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5551. Check out Zaleski on Twitter at @ZaleskiTD.

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