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placeholder July 7, 2014   •   VOL. 52, NO. 12   •   Oakland, CA

Vocations delayed by high student debt

WASHINGTON — The increasing burden of student debt on Catholics has turned into a major roadblock for young people trying to fulfill their vocations: whether it be for marriage, priesthood or religious life.

Cardinal Seán O'Malley of Boston raised the alarm in November about student debt, saying that "people are postponing marriage — are postponing a decision to go into the seminary or religious life — because they're saddled under these tremendous debts which former generations didn't have.

"If you have a $150,000 debt when you graduate law school, are you going to marry a girl who has a $130,000 debt and start off your marriage with over a quarter-million dollars' debt?"

Just last year, Georgetown's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate discovered that one out of three inquirers for religious life had an average student-debt load of $28,000. CARA's 2012 study reports that many institutes had to turn away applicants, and "slightly under half" of applicants with student debt were accepted into candidacy or postulancy with a religious order.

American families' student-debt burden totals more than one trillion dollars. The Wall Street Journal reported that the average student debt was $29,400, up 25 percent from four years ago, and that 10 percent of borrowers who started paying back their loans in 2011 had defaulted within two years. A survey by the Boston nonprofit American Student Assistance showed 29 percent of respondents reported putting off marriage as a result of their student loans, and 43 percent said that student debt factored in their decision to delay having children.

"It's contributing to the destruction of a culture of marriage and the decline of the marital birth rate," said Allan Carlson, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, who has researched extensively the challenges of student debt.

Carlson said healthy societies traditionally provided young people with start-up capital for marriage, such as dowries, wedding gifts of cash, land or property and help with housing, in order to encourage them to form families and have children.

"What we're doing is burdening young people with vast amounts of debt, and the result is they're delaying marriage, not getting married at all or having fewer children," he said.

Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said Catholic institutions of higher learning are making strides to bend the cost curve down for their students.

"We are really looking to pass along value and affordability and transparency to our students and launch them in a good way," he said. "We really don't want to hamper them, because having financial debt down the road has severe consequences for everybody."

Galligan-Stierle pointed out that almost half the students at Catholic universities and colleges graduate in four years: a higher rate than non-Catholic private counterparts, where 38 percent graduate in four years, and public universities, where 21 percent graduate in four years. Fewer years generally translate into less accumulated debt.

He added that Catholic colleges have stepped up to make college more affordable, as government financial-aid grants decline, with close to nine out of 10 students receiving institutional aid that averages $12,000 per year.

Some ACCU-affiliated colleges have opted to freeze tuition rates or increase them by less than the growth of inflation. Galligan-Stierle said these combined efforts of the nation's 200 Catholic colleges have "flatlined what it costs to go to Catholic colleges in the last five years."

Ohio Dominican University in Columbus, Ohio, is one of the Catholic universities cited by the ACCU as among the 20 member institutions that have increased student aid by 80 percent over the past five years to offset tuition increases.

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