Louisiana student loan debt averages $22,789

About a third of what Jessica Potts makes each month as a teacher goes toward paying off her student loans.

The LSU graduate still has about $40,000 to pay off — at the rate of $800 a month.

“I want the American dream, too ... the house, the car, everything, but at this time I can’t afford it,” she said.

Potts’ story is a familiar one for many Louisiana college and university graduates.

Nearly half of the class of 2012 in Louisiana graduated owing something. The average debt load was about $22,789.

And Louisiana’s figures are relatively low. Nationally, about 70 percent of 2012’s graduates had student loan debt, based on figures compiled by the Project on Student Debt, and the average amount was $29,400.

Tuition is going up, and students are borrowing more to pay for their education. The economy is still recovering, leaving many unable to find jobs.

An estimated 1 in 10 Louisiana graduates defaulted on federal student loan payments within two years of entering the repayment period, according to a U.S. Department of Education analysis.

Politicians from across the country and across the political spectrum have been trying to come up with ways to address the problem of student debt.

Among their proposals are tweaking the way borrowers pay off their loans and increasing grant aid to address rising college costs.

“There’s much to be concerned about,” said Debbie Cochrane, of The Institute for College Access & Success, or TICAS. “More students are needing to take out student loans to cover college costs, and the debt amount they are graduating with is going up.”

Last month, President Barack Obama signed an executive order that allows people who got federal loans before 2007 to make monthly payments that are no more than 10 percent of their income.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, has proposed legislation that would allow eligible debtors — an estimated 25 million people — to refinance their loans at the lower interest rates offered to new federal student loan borrowers.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, is among supporters of legislation that would change the loan repayment process in a way whereby payments would be deducted from paychecks, similar to state and federal taxes, and payments would be based on a percentage of income.

Cochrane called efforts to increase Pell Grant awards, as U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., has proposed, “a critical step in the right direction.” Landrieu’s plan would nearly double Pell payouts, which are based on income.

Pell today covers less than a third of college costs, Cochrane said. Students who receive Pell Grants have household incomes of less than $40,000. About 125,000 Louisiana students received a Pell Grant in 2012, the most recent figure available from the U.S. Department of Education.

“These are students who need support to cover college costs,” Cochrane said. “They need far more support than they’re getting.”

But Cochrane said states like Louisiana also could do things to address the issue by keeping expenses down. “We need states to stop the disinvestment that leads to increases in tuition,” she said.

Tuition at Louisiana colleges and universities has been on a dramatic incline as schools faced repeated budget cuts in recent years. Higher education leaders hailed this year’s legislative session as a success because their budgets weren’t cut, after they watched state funding for colleges and universities fall nearly $650 million in the previous six years. The 2010 Grad Act has allowed colleges to raise tuition up to 10 percent each year if they meet specific performance benchmarks.

Based on figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, the average net price for in-state, full-time undergraduates at Louisiana’s public universities last year was $9,463, while private schools on average cost about twice that. For graduate school and other advanced programs, the costs are even more.

Landrieu recently held a Web discussion with Louisiana graduates to discuss the debt crisis.

“The rising burdens are really putting college out of reach for so many students,” she said. “We want people to graduate with dreams, not debt.”

Potts, the LSU graduate, said she sees increases in Pell Grants as one way students would not have to rely so much on loans.

“It would be beneficial even to my students to have that available,” she said.

Potts was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis shortly after starting college. She knows at some point she might have to quit her teaching job and rely on disability. “It’s a big concern,” she said.

Landrieu said she’s concerned about the escalating costs of college.

“It’s really getting very expensive and, in some ways, out of reach for middle-class families and students,” she said.

Landrieu said she believes that lessening the burden of student debt will lead to more investment in Louisiana. Graduates will be able to purchase homes and cars if they aren’t making costly payments on student loans, she said.

“Everything we can do to reduce the interest rates and reduce the costs will come right back to our state,” she said.

Still, some say the student debt picture may be distorted. A new report from the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank, concluded that “the reality of student loans may not be as dire as many commentators fear.”

Brookings researchers found that, while tuition and student debt levels have been on a steep incline for at least two decades, some of the spike is due to students seeking advanced degrees that often translate to higher salaries.

“The monthly payment burden faced by student loan borrowers has stayed about the same or even lessened over the past two decades,” the national analysis found. “The median borrower has consistently spent 3 to 4 percent of their monthly income on student loan payments since 1992, and the mean payment-to-income ratio has fallen significantly, from 15 to 7 percent.”

Even Louisiana’s number and percentage of students in debt rank among the nation’s lowest, likely a result of the state’s generous TOPS program, which provides financial assistance to Louisiana students who meet certain academic standards in high school and stay in the state for college.

TOPS, or the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, has been the subject of an ongoing debate about its cost to the state. Legislators this session debated efforts to raise academic standards or scale back the program in other ways. Supporters of those changes said they would lessen the burden on the state budget, while opponents argued that TOPS is an investment in the state’s workforce and cutting it would limit access to education.

Cochrane agreed that Louisiana’s debt picture “is relatively low” when compared to other states, but she said it’s a complex picture.

“There isn’t one number we can point to and say this is reasonable and this isn’t,” she said.

The states with the most per-student debt and most students graduating with debt, based on TICAS’s analysis, tended to be in the Northeast, where average income levels are higher.

Louisiana’s median household income is among the nation’s lowest, based on census figures.

Micah Fincher, a New Orleans lawyer and a Landrieu supporter who participated in her Web discussion, graduated from LSU as an undergraduate in bioengineering, then attended law school there. He’s most interested in efforts to allow borrowers to refinance.

He estimates that the change would let him save thousands of dollars over the time that he pays back his loans — money he could use on a home or put toward retirement.

“It would mean a big difference in my life,” he said.

Mark Ross, of Bogalusa, another LSU graduate who participated in Landrieu’s discussion, said he also would like to see the refinance legislation pass.

He received his bachelor’s degree in 2004 with $17,000 in debt. He worked to pay it down and got to $12,000 before deciding to return to school for a master’s degree in education so he could become a teacher.

“It was odd to see how the interest rates had changed,” Ross said, noting that the interest rate had nearly tripled from what he was paying on his undergraduate loans.

“When you look at figures like that, it’s easy to see that everything’s going up,” he said, noting that Pell Grant amounts haven’t followed the trend. “Education is the only area where it seems that there’s been a slide off.”

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of the Louisiana Legislature, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.