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Iowa student loan debt: $13.08 billion, state's public universities report some progress

Iowa Board of Regents president Michael Richards opens the public comments time at the Board of Regents meeting at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Thursday, October 19, 2017.

Tuition rates at public and private colleges and universities nationally — and in Iowa — have soared over the last two decades, driving student borrowing into the trillions and causing alarm across academia, a new federal report shows.

Student borrowers collectively owe more than $1.4 trillion in loan debt, according to the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was created after the 2008 financial crisis. The bureau has received more than 50,000 complaints about the loans.

The bureau found there was $13.08 billion worth of outstanding student loan debt in Iowa on 2016, ranking the state 29th in the nation.

The bureau took 338 student loan complaints in Iowa between July 2011 and September 2017. It saw a 70 percent spike in complaints from the state between the October 2015-September 2016 time frame and the same period the next year.

Some of that might be due to the bureau’s updated complaint form, which now accepts complaints about federal student loan servicing.

But the numbers underscore a battle Iowa’s universities have been fighting for years — mounting student debt.

Iowa’s public universities have employed a variety of tactics against the problem, including mandatory training, financial counseling and more student financial aid for those who need it.

A recent Iowa Board of Regents’ report shows some improvements.

The percentage of undergraduates who graduated without debt increased at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa between the 2013-14 academic year and 2015-16.

The UI boasts the highest percentage in the state’s public institutions of undergraduates who leave school without debt — 45 percent — compared with 38 percent at ISU and 30 percent at UNI. Those numbers were 41, 36 and 25 percent respectively three years before, according to the report.

The average indebtedness of those who graduate with debt also recently has been trending down at the universities — although both ISU and UNI saw upticks in 2015-16, documents show.

Still, the average indebtedness of $26,557 at the UI, $27,563 at ISU and $22,999 at UNI is well above the levels of two decades ago, when those figures sat at $18,692 at the UI, $17,004 at ISU and $11,306 at UNI.

Iowa data shows students at the regent universities have been receiving less in federal loans in recent years. Conversely, aid in the form of scholarships and grants has been increasing — coming mostly from the universities and other sources.

For the next budget year, regents have asked the state for an increase in appropriations of $12 million, all of which they say they’d commit to financial aid. The aid, presumably, would help cushion the impact of proposed tuition hikes in the wake of previous takebacks and cuts in state appropriations.

The UI and ISU have proposed 7 percent tuition hikes every year for the next five years, and UNI has proposed an average hike of 5 percent each year — all providing lawmakers do not increase regents funding.

Regents have not said when they will decide on new tuition rates.

Actions of the upcoming Legislature, which convenes in January, could play a major role.

Congress’ actions on a tax overhaul could be factors as well.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act calls for nixing a student loan interest deduction from federal income taxes. CNBC last week reported more than 12 million borrowers included such a deduction on their 2015 taxes.

“A lot of the repeal of taxes or the minimizing of taxes to businesses is going to end up coming on the backs of students who would have been claiming these benefits and now are no longer able to do so,” said Robert Johnson, director of the ISU Office of Student Financial Aid.

It’s unclear, though, whether more financial pain on the back end of a loan would affect a student’s decision to take one out in the first place.

“We are in favor of having things like the interest deduction or higher education credits — those do help families that are paying for higher education,” said Sara Even, associate director of UI Financial Literacy and Academic Progress. “But will the loss of those stop families from borrowing? Probably not.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com