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Brittany Bullock (left) and Imani Brown celebrate with the rest of the graduates during Salem College’s 247th commencement on May 25 at Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem.

The student loan crisis is more than just a devastating problem for individuals and families.

It threatens the hopes of millions of North Carolinians, and more broadly, the state’s economy by saddling current as well as former students with seemingly endless cycles of debt.

How did we get here? Not so long ago, a college education was considered the ticket to the American dream, leading to a good career, a home and a family. More recently, some kind of education beyond high school has been viewed as essential for being able to compete for jobs in today’s global and high-tech economy.

Today, going to college or getting other advanced education could mean dragging for years a burden of debt that could keep a student from ever owning a home, affording a family or pursuing a desired career. The cost of tuition has been rising much faster than the rate of inflation or the salaries that graduates are likely to find in their first jobs.

A recent study by the Center for Responsible Lending found that in North Carolina, more than 1.2 million residents have student loan debt that totals about $44 billion. The crisis is so severe that it’s discouraging some young people from considering college, even though good jobs for people without advanced education are increasingly scarce.

The cost of education and the difficulty in finding affordable financing are especially hard on prospective students from lower-income families, including minorities and people from rural and high-poverty areas. The problems often grow worse when students try an online or for-profit school rather than a traditional college. And even worse when someone falls behind on repaying student loans and turns to unscrupulous lenders.

What to do? For one thing, North Carolina can try hard to make sure community and technical colleges offer preparation for the latest careers, while keeping their costs affordable. Slowing the rise of tuition at the state’s four-year colleges also can help. The state could put more resources into need-based grant aid for students as well, and help students take advantage of federal programs.

The state should monitor the for-profit and online colleges operating in North Carolina, making sure they aren’t wasting the money and time of needy students. It can make sure these schools maintain reasonably high standards, have real faculties and are providing instruction that will help students prepare for jobs. And it can help students get reimbursed when a for-profit school folds.

Finally, the state should keep a tight rein on lenders that handle student loans, even though the Trump administration has been working to roll back Obama-era regulations aimed at protecting borrowers. To his credit, N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein has joined officials in other states in affirming that states have the right and obligation to regulate companies that service student loans, despite statements to the contrary from the U.S. Department of Education.

Going to college should not turn into the impossible dream. The state should do more to keep college costs from rising, and to protect students and families that must borrow to pay for college. That’s the right thing for students, and the right thing for North Carolina.

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