The numbers are as frightening as a haunted house and the testimonials more depressing than the evening news, but arguably the most provocative page in a joint report issued last week by Alliance for a Just Society and Oregon Action is the cover.
There, splashed under the title of the report, “Sentenced to Debt,” are three rows of black-and-white mug shots, five in each row for a total of 15 faces. They are students posing for the camera, each holding a small dry-erase board, upon which is written the amount of student loan debt they have incurred.
A man in the top row who looks like he could be in the middle of a gulp holds a sign that reads, “Sentenced to $41,307.” A woman in the middle row with blonde hair flashes an ironic smile and a sign that reads, “Sentenced to $69,000.” On the bottom row, a woman with dark eyes and a blank expression holds a sign that reads, “Sentenced to $136,000 in student loan debt.”
The photos were taken at Southern Oregon University and Rogue Community College, where members of the Alliance for a Just Society and Oregon Action were on hand, asking students to fill out surveys that would eventually be used to complete a report.
Kay Brooks, an Oregon Action board member and recent RCC graduate who herself went $10,000 under in order to attend school, says collecting the data was a somber experience.
There were an incredible amount of folks that expressed remorse regarding the amount of debt they'd gone into in relation to the saturation of the job market for certain sectors, as well as accruing enough debt that, if they had to leave school or defaulted on loans, cyclical poverty was "almost guaranteed,” she said. “Dreams of home ownership, financial solvency, even more basic measures like housing and food security were all affected. It was depressing work at times.”
Most would consider the report depressing to read, too.
The 27-page document, which is available as a downloadable PDF at oregonaction.org, combines research, economic analysis and data from a 2015 survey of 100 students at Southern Oregon University and Rogue Community College. According to its survey findings:
• Eighty-eight percent of those surveyed who took out loans said they did so because they could not afford an education otherwise.
• Nearly three-fourths of respondents expected to graduate with debt levels between $25,000 and $75,000.
• More than two-thirds of respondents reported working at least one job.
• Two-thirds of respondents said they experience high levels of anxiety about their student loan debt and 40 percent reported extreme or overwhelming anxiety.
Michelle Glass, an Oregon Action regional director who graduated from Southern Oregon University with a sociology degree, is listed as one of the report’s four authors and says the results are legitimate. Glass worked for the Southern Oregon Research Center while attending SOU as an undergrad and, as a sociologist, has been trained to run surveys. Also, she added, the Alliance for a Just Society conducted a data review of the survey.
“We certainly have a commitment to making sure that we’re providing useful data,” Glass said. “That’s what we didn’t find when we did our initial search and that’s what motivated us to do this.”
According to the report, Oregon’s student loan debt crisis can be traced back to the Oregon legislature’s decision to start implementing deep budget cuts to higher education before the great recession, a philosophy whose net result is that a high and growing percentage of public universities’ operating costs come from tuition. In 1997, student tuition and fees covered 49 percent of the operating costs at Oregon’s public four-year colleges, while most of the rest was covered by the state. The percentage covered by tuition has been steadily rising ever since and stood at 73 percent in 2013.
Consequently, tuition has also increased, 28.8 percent between 2008 and 2014. Oregon college students incurred $1.34 billion of loans during the 2013, double that of 10 years prior, according to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The impact is far reaching, Brooks said, and some of the consequences are not apparent.
“I think one of the more impactful findings,” she said, “was the amount of shame regarding people’s experiences of debt. Student debt was often one of the only forms of debt they had experienced but was the most debilitating.”
Three pages near the end of the report, headed “recommendations,” lists four possible solutions: fully fund Oregon’s higher education, raise revenue by mandating corporations to pay into the system, increase the minimum wage and invest in innovative new models for higher education.
When asked about the challenge of convincing a population of diverse political views to come together in support of the report’s recommendations, Glass said the data is her greatest ally.
“I think it’s just clear at this point that what we are doing isn’t working,” she said, “and I think that when you look at the impacts that are laid out in the report, particularly the impact to local families but also the impact to the statewide economy as a whole, that’s not sustainable.”
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org.