Meet student Kate Lavery. Now a junior at Indiana University, Lavery’s now more than $100,000 in college debt. And, she doesn’t know if she will be able to afford to complete her undergraduate degree in sociology next year. The level of sticker shock attached to college debt is becoming more worrisome to higher education policymakers, who’ve set lofty goals for increasing college graduation rates at a time when Americans owe more on their student loans than they do on their credit cards.  The implications of the burgeoning debt load on students are worrisome for the Lumina Foundation and its “Complete College” agenda. The topic was the subject of an in-depth article at the StateImpact website.  StateImpact is a collaboration among NPR and local public radio stations in eight pilot states to examine public policy issues in-depth.  For a look at what that means for college leaders, read on.

Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis-based, privately-funded education research organization has been at the forefront of a nationwide push to get colleges to increase their graduation rates to raise the rate of Americans holding college degrees — currently at roughly 39 percent — to 60 percent by 2025. That means more than 23 million more people would have to go through college in the next 12 years.

The StateImpact piece notes that Lumina hasn’t had a hard time selling this agenda to state and national lawmakers. But stories like Kate Lavery’s — and statistics from the Federal Reserve that student loan debt has multiplied five fold in the past decade — have prompted anxieties that the country’s burgeoning student loan burden could become a roadblock to meeting Lumina’s lofty goals.

“Availability [of higher education] has a lot to do with it being affordable,” says Dewayne Matthews, Lumina’s vice president of policy. “The student debt issue certainly is a big piece of the affordability question — it intersects it in a lot of different ways.”

So, what can college presidents and other top administrators do about this problem to help students control their costs? The truth is that we have moved from state support for public higher education to a system of loans and tax credits that puts more of the burden on paying for education on the individual student and his or her family.  The current battle over student loan rates is a minor skirmish that does not address the underlying problem. While the state and federal governments look for policy answers, it is up to each institution to do whatever it can to see that students progress toward graduation as quickly as possible.  In our work with colleges, we often see that the average students graduates with more than the required 120 or so credit hours for an undergraduate degree.  Those extra 20 or 30 or more credit hours are often the result of changes in major or lost credits because of transfer.  The biggest favor the institution can do is to lay out a clear path to graduation and then support the student in staying on that path.  For every extra semester that a student is in school, there are added costs for tuition, books and living expenses PLUS the opportunity cost of being in school when they could be in the work force. We need to be thinking about the total “life cycle cost” of gaining a higher education degree and then looking for ways to reduce it.