Cost still challenges Iowa college students despite federal debt forgiveness

By: - September 2, 2022 5:07 pm

Students at Iowa State University and other Iowa colleges are still concerned about costs despite the federal loan forgiveness, aid workers say. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

While many Iowa college students and graduates will benefit from the national student loan forgiveness program, student aid workers say it may not encourage more Iowans to pursue higher education.

Meghan Oster, the division administrator for research and communication at Iowa College Aid, said it’s too early to know for sure how the announcement will impact students’ approach to secondary education in the state. However, the Biden administration decision may not negate concerns that future and current students have about the costs of college, she said.

“I don’t necessarily think that individuals will make decisions around ‘I’m going to go to college with the anticipation that even more future loans will be forgiven,’” Oster said. “… In general, the sentiment across individuals is that this is a one-off loan forgiveness package.”

President Joe Biden announced Aug. 24 that he was canceling $10,000 in student loan debt for borrowers with an income of less than $125,000 for an individual and $250,000 for a household, and $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients. In addition to these one-time debt reductions, the Biden administration extended its repayment pause through Dec. 31 and directed the federal Department of Education to change its rules on repayment to help future and current borrowers.

Fewer high school seniors seek federal college aid

Fewer Iowa high school seniors have applied for financial aid via the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, in the past several years, according to Iowa College Aid. While the rate did not drop last year with nearly half of Iowa’s 2022 high school graduating class completing the application, fewer students are applying for federal student aid now than before the COVID-19 pandemic.

But there are other factors beyond COVID-19 keeping students from planning to attend college. The strong job market in Iowa may also encourage some graduating high school seniors to directly seek employment instead of getting a degree, Oster said. The national unemployment rate in August was 3.7%, slightly up from half-century low of 3.5% in July.

“There’s a narrative that college is expensive, and ‘I can make decent money right now, so why shouldn’t I go make decent money right now?’ and figure out advanced education later down the road,” she said.

College is becoming more expensive at state universities. The Iowa Board of Regents voted in July to raise tuition by 4.25% at Iowa State University, University of Northern Iowa and University of Iowa, heading into the 2022-2023 school year. Public university tuition for undergraduates remains below $10,000 per year for state residents, but university student leaders have criticized the hike for potentially keeping some Iowans from attending college.

Iowa State University president Wendy Wintersteen said at an “Iowa Press” recording Friday that the university is taking a “proactive approach” to helping students navigate the increased costs through the school’s financial aid and scholarship programs.

But Wintersteen said it was unlikely that ISU, or other Iowa public universities, would be able to lower costs without significant investment from the state government. This year’s tuition hike came after the Board of Regents failed to secure its requested $15 million in state funding during the legislative session. Lawmakers only approved $5.5 in general aid after cutting $7 million from the Regents’ budget in fiscal year 2021.

“The state invests quite a large sum of funds into Iowa State University and we’re very thankful for that,” Wintersteen said. “But it would take quite a bit more for us to be able to lower tuition. And so there are a lot of expenses the state has. We of course believe that higher education should be a top priority because of the return on the investment.”

While Biden’s student debt forgiveness announcement does alleviate the concern about costs for current and future students in Iowa, the administration’s new loan repayment plans may offer more help, Oster said.

The Department of Education was directed by the Biden administration to establish a rule to lower the monthly repayment limit from 10% to 5% of a borrower’s discretionary income, and would forgive loan balances after 10 years of payment, instead of 20 years, for people with $12,000 or less remaining loan debt.

“From a long-term perspective, the changes that he made to income-driven repayment programs and kind of how we repay students loans will actually have longer and more impactful outcomes than this one-off $10,000 — and $20,000 if you were a Pell Grant student — will have,” Oster said.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.