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Student Debt Crisis Isn't Just About Economy

With the Iowa caucus under our belt, the 2012 election year is in full swing and one issue being raised across the country is student debt. So far, it seems that a number of candidates propose to address this issue through their plans to "improve the economy." They don't seem to understand the educational debt crisis very well.

We certainly recognize the dire need for more jobs, but we think the issue of educational debt demands a more direct solution. We're taking this opportunity to raise some issues that warrant candidates' attention and to clarify the magnitude of what students and graduates are facing.

Student debt is already greater than credit card debt (that happened in 2010) and will soon pass $1 trillion. According to expert Mark Kantrowitz, total student loan debt is increasing at a rate of about $2,853.88 per second. Two thirds of the undergraduate class of 2010 graduated with student debt, at an average of more than $25,000 per student.

recent survey commissioned by The Institute for College Access & Success, Demos, and Young Invincibles found that 76 percent of young adults say college has become harder to afford in the last five years, but they overwhelmingly (eight in 10) believe college and other education after high school is more important today than a generation ago.

The costs of a college education are rising beyond most families' reach and more and more students must take out loans if they want to procure a college education. This is making a vital piece of the American Dream less accessible to low- and moderate- income families.

So listen up, candidates! Young adults want access to affordable education. They strongly oppose cutting student aid, and more than two thirds of all young adults say college affordability should be a top priority for Congress. Nearly nine in 10 support making college and training more affordable as a way to strengthen the economy (addressing debt as a cause rather than effect, as opposed to the trickle-down view that more jobs will help the debt outlook).

Some theorize that government involvement is the cause of the student debt crisis because the availability of loan money allows colleges to raise tuitions, but we don't think the solution is to eliminate federal funding that is designed to increase access to education. Private lenders just step in and fill the gap. And while some may think they would do a better job, we think private loan borrowers need increased protections. Remember this story? It's just one among millions of borrowers. Share yours with the Consumer Finance Protection Board and tell the folks there that we need help. The deadline is Jan. 17.

While federal loans are still loans (here's a look at the devastating effectsof defaulting on federal loans), they are required to provide options for repayment and relief like deferment, forbearance, Income-Based Repayment (IBR) and Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). (Learn more about IBR and PSLF from one of our free student debt relief webinars; the next one is Thursday, Jan. 12, from 1 to 2 p.m. ET.)

And before we start criticizing students for chasing lofty dreams they can't afford or pursuing "impractical" majors, here's a look at one reason students must pay so much for education and practical skills training they previously would have been able to find at quality community colleges (which are also becoming increasingly expensive).

It's not that students are "living beyond their means." (In fact, there is some real concern about students' unwillingness to borrow and the effects it has on their education.) And it's not kids looking to "get out of jail free"­—it's recently been middle-aged folks who've shouldered the largest increase in student debt levels.

There are myriad reasons why students must borrow for school­. We're not saying we like that fact, but it is the current reality. And while the creation of jobs may help repayment in the future, it will not address these reasons.

More importantly, $1 trillion in student debt can't wait for the future: People­ young and old­ are suffering real consequences every day. Parents and grandparents are forfeiting incomes and retirement funds and some students are driven to seek income in shocking ways. We need a solution now. Let's make sure that those who seek to lead also seek to bring real solutions that will improve the futures of millions of Americans.

To stay updated on proposals and programs for student debt relief, connect with us on Twitter (@EJW_org #studentdebthelp) and Facebook. And comment below to let us know how you think we need to address the educational debt crisis.

Radhika Singh Miller is a program manager for Educational Debt Relief and Outreach at Equal Justice Works. In 2008, she served on the Student Loans Team in the Negotiated Rulemaking for the College Cost Reduction and Access Act (CCRAA) and has extensive knowledge of this landmark educational debt relief legislation. Radhika graduated fromLoyola Law School Los Angeles and was most recently a staff attorney at the Partnership for Civil Justice, focusing on constitutional and civil rights litigation and advocacy.