The sound of gnashing teeth is apparent on many college campuses as students graduate into a weak job market while simultaneously facing a mountain of debt. This year the amount of student loan debt — more than $1 trillion — eclipsed the amount of consumer credit card debt. That is a first.

With students borrowing twice what they have in the past and consumers now paying down their own credit card debt, the scales have tipped decidedly toward student loan debt. That situation is bound to worsen with the pending doubling of interest rates on new student loans after July 2012. In Kansas, 57 percent of college seniors graduated in 2010 each with an average of about $22,280 in student loan debt, according to the Project on Student Debt by The Institute for College Access & Success. As bad as that seems, it could be worse. In South Dakota, 75 percent of seniors were carrying a similar amount of debt. Sadly, most of those students don’t understand who they borrowed from, how much it will cost them to pay back all that debt or even how long they will be making payments.

That doesn’t equate to well-educated students. One area sorely missing from students’ education is financial literacy. At least one course in personal financial literacy should be a requirement for college students as they learn to navigate the waters of independence. Teaching students from the beginning about budgeting, living on much less than they earn and prioritizing needs over wants  must be learned early to help them become discriminating consumers who are careful with their expenditures so they can learn to save money — even a little bit — early on. Creating good spending habits from the beginning could reduce the amount of money they want to borrow for student loans and foster more informed lifetime spending habits. Perhaps then they only would borrow the amount of money they need for the necessities, rather than getting more than they need to live more comfortably than necessary.

Healthful financial habits don’t just happen. They are learned. Some people learn by making mistakes while others learn earlier and become proactive about the choices they make. While not everyone will practice what they are taught, teaching financial literacy early can help establish the appropriate attitude, respect and responsibility for spending decisions in young people.

For those young or old who want to take better control of their finances, the Kansas State Research and Extension service developed a motivational self-assessment tool online at

It can help families assess their financial situation and look for troubled areas, possibly prompting some lifestyle changes that yield a less-stressful life to reduce the likelihood of living paycheck-to-paycheck. Better financial literacy alone could reduce student loan debt and would be among the best lessons students learn at college — regardless of their major.


— Jeanny Sharp, editor and publisher