TAMPA — Even in hard times, students view borrowing for education as a down payment on the good life.
But students and experts alike worry that rising costs could push some out of the market for a college education, as Florida legislators mull double-digit tuition increases and scholarship cuts.
"We're not spiraling out of control yet, but I do think the trends are leading in a direction where that could happen if we're not careful," said Braulio Colon, interim director of the Florida College Access Network, a Tampa-based advocacy group. "We really are at a crossroads right now."
Student loans now make up a larger percentage of debt than credit cards nationally, and may soon hit the trillion dollar mark, the New York Times reported this week.
Compared to most states, Florida is still a low-cost haven for diplomas. Students from nonprofit universities graduated with an average debt of $20,766 in 2009, compared to $24,000 nationally, according to the California-based Project on Student Debt. Less than half of all Florida students graduated with some debt, topping all but nine states.
"It's less than a car," said Billie Jo Hamilton, director of student financial aid at the University of South Florida, where students graduated last year with average loans of $20,493. "For those students who graduate, I think it's a very good investment for them, assuming they can find employment."
But those averages mask big differences, with some students carrying barely any debt and others swimming in it.
Justin McFatridge, 24, said he worries about the $6,000 he'll likely owe when he graduates from USF in December with a degree in public relations.
"It does seem like a lot, and the interest keeps going up," said McFatridge, who started in community college and lives at home to control costs.
His debts are nothing compared to Bernice Sims, 50, who enrolled at USF five years ago to study sociology. She figures she'll owe around $30,000.
"Right now, because I have a job, it's manageable," said Sims, who works as an office manager for a physician. "But if something happens to my job …"
She couldn't finish that scary thought. And she was shocked to learn that legislative leaders view 15 percent tuition increases as inevitable.
"It's high already," Sims protested. "No, absolutely not."
While Florida universities are third-cheapest in the nation to attend, state policymakers say they plan to move tuitions toward the national average at up to 15 percent a year to maintain programs and compete in the bidding war for top professors.
Colon, 31, said he understands the dire budget situation facing Florida universities. But he urged legislators not to go too far as they consider further cutbacks to taxpayer-funded scholarships like Bright Futures.
Doing so could harm students who are already struggling to pay for college, he said. Excluding the University of Florida, around 55 percent of the state's students drop out with debts but no degree.
Colon himself is paying back $36,000 in loans he racked up while earning bachelor's and master's degrees from USF, as well as holding down a part-time job that required a car. But he has no regrets.
"It's all about completing college," he said. "That's where students' earnings are likely to increase significantly, and they'll be able to pay back those loans."
Economist Sean Snaith, director of the Institute for Economic Competitiveness at the University of Central Florida, said he's concerned about students who borrow too much for degrees that don't pay off.
He urged students and parents to research programs carefully, and not to be misled by for-profit colleges that promise too much.
"You can't go into this blind," he said. "You better make sure it's what you want."
But Snaith said investing in a quality degree is still worthwhile, even if the job market looks bleak.
"There's a lot more reason to be optimistic now than two years ago," he said. "We're in a deep hole, but we will get out of it."
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.