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University of Alaska president blames student extravagance for their debt

Pat Forgey
Aaron Jansen illustration

JUNEAU, Alaska -- It's not rising University of Alaska tuition that's leaving graduates with crippling debt loads. Instead, it's the students themselves who are at fault for borrowing to support lifestyles they can't afford, say President Pat Gamble and members of the university's Board of Regents.

“A lot of student debt is choice,” Gamble told the regents. The board recently voted 9-1 to approve Gamble's recommendation of a 2 percent increase in resident tuition for the next academic year. That relatively modest increase followed last year's 7 percent increase and more than a decade of substantial annual increases, some in the double digits. Tuition has gone up so fast, according to Regent Kenneth Fisher of Juneau, that annual tuition that was $2,300 a year a decade ago is now $5,100.

Keeping up with inflation for that same period would have raised tuition to $3,100, he said.

Fisher urged the regents to hold tuition steady next year and not have any increase at all.

“University of Alaska students and their families shouldn't bear any further our lack of cost containment,” Fisher said.

Too many students have to borrow that tuition money, and rising debt is hurting students, and even hurting the economy when graduates have to focus on paying off student loans instead of buying houses. “I don't want to increase that debt burden for our students,” he said.

Gamble praises Fisher's goal, but called no increase in tuition next year unrealistic. Holding the increase to 2 percent in the face of rising payroll, health care, energy and other costs will already mean cuts, he said. And Gamble downplayed Fisher's debt concern. He said many students were “trying to subsidize a lifestyle, on top of the cost of going to college.”

“They've got to have a car, got to have the apartment, got to go to spring break, do all that stuff,” he said.

That's been made possible by generous federal student loan programs and loan guarantees, he said.

Retired bank president Jyotsna Heckman, a Fairbanks regent, said her son, is borrowing only what's absolutely necessary to attend law school, but that's not what most students do. They're going into debt so they can have a car now, a trip now, and go shopping, with little concern for the consequences, she said.

“The students out there take every dime that's available to them,” she said.

Regent Kirk Wickersham recommended more financial counseling for students because they're borrowing more than they need for their education, and probably more than they should be borrowing.

“We all know students that use this money for worthy causes and unworthy causes, but causes that have nothing to do with higher education,” he said. “And they do it because they can.”

Wickersham, an Anchorage attorney and real estate broker, said those taking on the debt often don't understand the financial consequences of student loans. “You can't get away from them -- they dog you until you pay them or you die,” he said.

University officials defend the rising tuition, saying they've been told by the Legislature to rely less on the general fund, and that rising college costs aren't unique to Alaska. President Gamble noted that most students get some type of non-debt aid, and that the rest of the nation's colleges and universities have seen increases as well.

“Something's going on here that isn't unique to just Alaska,” he said.