Congratulations, you've been accepted to Columbia University's film program. Welcome to your lifetime of debt. That's not quite the greeting new grad students receive, but it ends up being the unwelcome reality for all too many, reports the Wall Street Journal. The newspaper takes a lengthy look at one particular angle of the student-debt problem—grad school debt at elite universities. Columbia is far from the only offender, but its film program (it can cost about $300,000 in tuition, fees, and living expenses) has the biggest gap between what students walk out owing in federal loans and what they're able to pay back when they graduate. As the story explains, one factor in all this is the federal Grad Plus loan program, which, unlike undergrad loans, does not put a limit on how much students can borrow. It is now the fastest-growing federal student loan program in the US.
As a result, grad programs have become what the story by Melissa Korn and Andrea Fuller describes as a "gold mine" for universities. They tick off example after example of students, often sold on the idea that an Ivy League degree will set them up for life, who graduate with six-figure debt but can't land jobs paying more than $40,000 or so. As a result, their debt only grows because of accrued interest. The balance of Grad Plus loans can be forgiven, but only after 20 to 25 years on a payment plan pegged to income. "Financially hobbled for life," is how Matt Black, a Columbia film grad, puts it. The 36-year-old graduated in 2015 with $233,000 in federal loans and makes $60,000 in a good year. His loan balance is now $331,000. A UCLA prof who has studied master's degrees sums up: Universities are "not really held accountable for the myth they’re selling to students,” says Ozan Jaquette. “We should not be giving federal-aid dollars to these programs that systematically saddle students with high debt." Read the full story. (Read more student debt stories.)