Lexington’s pulse always quickens as students return in August, especially now with enrollment at the University of Kentucky expected to top 30,000 for the second year in a row.
Numbers won’t be final for a few weeks, but UK’s freshmen are expected to make up the largest class ever (5,250).
Their average ACT is as high or higher than any before (an expected 25.5). More of them than ever will come from outside Kentucky (37 percent).
And they’re more likely to leave UK with not just a diploma and some Wildcat garb but also substantial debt.
About 41 percent of UK graduates in 2013 had outstanding student loans. Their average debt was $25,102, according to the Institute for College Access & Success.
The national numbers were higher. Sixty-nine percent who graduated from public and nonprofit colleges in 2013 had student loan debt, with a per borrower average of $28,400.
The White House reports that Kentucky has 604,000 borrowers with an outstanding balance of $14.4 billion on subsidized student loans, for an average balance of $23,915.
Financing college was simpler for the GIs who won World War II and their baby- boomer offspring. Public university tuition was so cheap that undergrads could pay for it with a full-time summer job and part-time work during school.
UK’s tuition has risen 85 percent over the last 10 years. In-state freshmen will pay tuition and fees of $12,029 for two semester; non-residents, roughly double that.
Actual out-of-pocket tuition costs for many will be lower, in some cases zero, depending on academic record and economic need.
Room and board ranges from $8,900 to $15,000 depending on how plush the digs and the meal plan.
Throw in books, travel and sundry expenses and you’re talking more than $100,000 for four years in Lexington.
The steep rise in tuition is generally blamed on declining state support, here and around the country.
There’s also a growing school of thought — ranging from Bill Bennett, the education secretary under President Ronald Reagan, to President Barack Obama — that the limitless increases in college tuition are fueled by the limitless availability of federally backed student loans.
How to make college affordable again is already a hot topic in the 2016 presidential race.
Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders want to lower or eliminate student costs by putting more federal dollars into higher education — Sanders by taxing Wall Street transactions and Clinton by limiting tax deductions for the wealthy.
Democrats also are calling for allowing student debt to be refinanced at lower rates.
But others who have studied the problem say that refinancing would help those who have borrowed the most, usually to fund medical educations, and whose future incomes will allow them to easily repay the loans.
The few dollars that borrowers of smaller amounts would save through refinancing will not help them repay even their modest debts because they’re in low-paying jobs. What they need is repayment based on income.
Meanwhile, Republicans in the House have voted to roll back need-based Pell Grants and Obama’s expansion of student-loan forgiveness measures.
It’s all pretty complicated. So, in addition to decorating dorm rooms and quaffing caffeine in the largest Starbucks on any college campus, UK’s millennials and their families should also be tuning in to presidential politics.