WASHINGTON — About 885,000 Arizonans owe a total of more than $22.6 billion in federal student loans — numbers that students and experts fear will only get worse under a 13-percent university funding cut in the just-approved state budget.
The debt numbers were reported by the White House this month as President Obama signed a “student aid bill of rights,” aimed at helping students repay their college loans.
The memo directed several federal agencies to set new regulations on lenders to keep borrowers from falling behind on payments, to ensure fair treatment for those struggling with repayment and to create a system for people to file loan complaints, among other changes.
That signing came just days after Arizona lawmakers approved a $9.1 billion budget for fiscal 2016 that cut $99 million from higher education.
Presidents of the state’s three universities have not said if the cuts will mean higher tuition, but Arizona State University President Michael Crow said in a statement that cuts “will be felt not only by Arizona’s institutions of higher education but also by the students whom we serve.”
Arizona Board of Regents President Eileen Klein left little doubt about what she thinks will happen.
“There’s a direct correlation between how much money the state gives and how much has to be charged to students,” Klein said Friday. “And right now, the state’s going in the wrong direction.”
A spokesman for Gov. Doug Ducey said cuts were needed to close a $1.5 billion deficit, and noted that K-12 education was protected. Spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said the cuts made up 13 percent of state funding for universities, but actually accounted for only 2 percent of their overall budgets.
“Everyone had to tighten their belts,” said Scarpinato, who said the state was faced with a budget crisis this year.
But Issac Ortega, president of the Associated Students of the University of Arizona, called the cuts “discouraging” and “disincentivizing.”
He said they will likely mean higher tuition, “which turns into debt for most students.”
Ortega, a first-generation college student, works to help pay for his education but has still had to take out loans.
“I personally understand the struggle of what it’s like to be a stereotypical college student who can’t afford everything and you’re pulling out loans left and right,” he said. “It’s really tough looking at that debt number grow every year.”
The White House put Arizona’s average college-loan debt — $25,618 for each student, past or present — near the middle of state rankings.
But Klein fears that number will grow.
Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com, a financial planning website for students and parents, said students got to this point in the first place because of decades of federal and state cuts to public university spending.
“Cuts in state support in particular are a key driver of tuition inflation and of increasing debt at graduation. They’re either going to have more debt, or they’re going to be less likely to ultimately obtain a bachelor’s degree,” he said of students.
He called Obama’s proposal “a step in the right direction,” but not much more.
“The president’s proposals are focused on helping borrowers after the fact,” Kantrowitz said. “In other words, you have too much debt or too little income and you’re trying to pay off your debt. Here are some options for relief.
“I think we need to focus a lot more on preventing students from getting into trouble in the first place.”
One way to do that might be not going to college at all, said Jonathan Butcher, education director at the Goldwater Institute.
He said there are other paths to success than through earning a bachelor’s degree.
“Not every child should be either forced to or necessarily encouraged to go to college,” Butcher said.
Not because they can’t, he said, but because it may not be right for them.
“There’s a lot to be said for high-quality technical schools and trade schools, and even taking some time to work in the business community before you go to college,” he said.
Butcher said tuition is “on a runaway train” because the federal government is too eager to underwrite student loans and universities have no incentive to keep tuition affordable.
“What they’re trying to do is ask taxpayers to subsidize more kids to go to college, when they may not in fact need to,” he said.
But Kantrowitz said states that cut college support are “eating their young,” by cutting the future earning power of residents.
“Someone who has a bachelor’s degree or a more advanced degree pays more than twice the income tax of someone with just a high school diploma,” he said. “They are eating their future tax revenues in order to have a short-lived source of financial relief.”
Butcher, however, said encouraging students to go to college who might not be ready has costs as well.
“It’s not helping the community when you have kids go to college and take out loans and then drop out and can’t repay loans, and then leave it up to the taxpayers to cover the costs.”