The Student Debt Dilemma: Debt Aversion as a Barrier to College Access


Though the rise in college student debt often has been blamed on rising tuition, a radical shift in student financial aid--from a system relying primarily on need-based grants to one dominated by loans--has been equally important. Numerous reports have highlighted the burdens faced by students who borrow large sums, but less is known about students who are averse to borrowing. For these students, the increasing prominence of loans could actually narrow their options and decrease their chances of attending and completing college. Given the increasingly important role of student loans in financial aid packages, perceptions about debt influence the ability of loan programs to achieve their goal of equalizing opportunity for students at all income levels. Based on interviews with students, counselors, outreach professionals, and financial aid directors, as well as a review of relevant research, this discussion paper offers an initial gauge of the debt dilemma and recommends four broad strategies: (1) making more grant money available for low-income and first-generation students, (2) making loan programs more attractive and efficient through income-based repayment strategies, (3) better integrating financial aid awareness into high school counseling, and (4) providing more pathways for students who prefer to attend part-time. Loans are likely to remain a mainstay of federal financial aid programs, so as interest rates begin to rise for the first time in years, foreshadowing higher future payments, the problems faced by students who borrow as well as the barriers confronted by those who are averse to borrowing are only liable to increase.

Pamela Burdman
Publication date: 
October 1, 2005
Publication type: 
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)
Burdman, P. (2005). The Student Debt Dilemma: Debt Aversion as a Barrier to College Access. UC Berkeley: Center for Studies in Higher Education.