Student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt. Loans in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars place both practical and psychological burdens on a community college student whether just out of high school, returning after not completing college, or an adult seeking enrichment or a career change.

Young community college students are usually intending to transfer to a four-year institution or start a career. Congress has recognized this burden by considering H.R. 4170 -- The Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012. The University of Texas at Austin is starting an experiment where 200 fall 2013 freshmen can have loan forgiveness based on the progress in their academic studies.

How does student loan debt affect a community college student? It limits the student's options and increases the student's anxiety about the future, especially as the debt increases. With tens of thousands dollars in debt, will a student be able to volunteer or even work for a nonprofit organization or start up or work for a speculative startup that might fail?

Will the prospect of building up $100,000 more in debt by graduation from a four-year college or university make the student choose a major on the basis of how high the starting salary will be rather than what the student is most interested in learning?


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There are ways for students to have student loans reduced or forgiven. President Barack Obama has proposed five ways to reduce student loan debt payments, including capping monthly loan payments at 10 percent of income, reducing the 25-year limit on payments to 20 years, consolidating loans with a lower interest rate, increasing information for students so they select the lower cost options, and proposing loan reductions for startup entrepreneurs.

In addition, there are other established methods to reduce financial college burdens, including joining the military, teaching in certain areas or fields, and others. One, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, was passed by Congress in 2007 to encourage people to work full time in public service, allowing those borrowers forgiveness of federal student loans after they have made 120 payments on those loans.

Now is the time to focus on having an experiment to help reduce student loans owed by community college students by involving the private sector. There are 72 community college districts in California, with 112 colleges and two million students, the most in America.

In a departure from current or planned options, this loan forgiveness experiment should reduce student loans based on the student completing a plan for volunteer or paid work for community organizations, from charities (churches, food banks, crisis centers, et al) to local governments, including police and fire departments (which have had substantial staffing reductions). The program would be administered by having the student apply to a website of a central statewide coordinating agency through the student's community college district. Thus, local college districts would have an incentive to publicize and explain this option to its students through posters, articles in student newspapers, faculty, staff and other means.

Ideally, the funding for this experiment, including cost reimbursement for districts participating, would be provided through the personal support of the billionaires who are participating in "The Giving Pledge" (http://givingpledge.org), which has "an annual event, (where) those who take the pledge will come together to share ideas and learn from each other." The pledge is to give away their fortunes during their lifetimes.

The way to start this experiment is to have every California community college district board pass an identical resolution asking for these individuals to consider funding an effort with a limited number of districts participating for a limited time to see if the idea works. If successful, this student-loan-forgiveness-for-community-service concept would be expanded gradually to all California community college students.

Greg Enholm is a DeVry University professor and the elected East County Trustee for Contra Costa Community College District. He can be reached at gbenholm2@hotmail.com.

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