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Mark Kennedy

When I was in school in the late 1970s, a college dorm room was like a flea-bag motel.

I once shared a room with a guy who could shower, smoke and eat corn chips all at the same time. Meanwhile, I thought I had refined tastes because I ate pressed beef and Pringles.

We had a balky, 13-inch television (no cable), a telephone with a cord and squeaky bunk beds. In Gore Hall, where I lived as a freshman at Middle Tennessee State University, we slept three to a room. I think there were two toilets for a four-room suite of 12 guys. As a sophomore, I moved to dumpy H Hall, so named I'm guessing because no self-respecting famous person would let the university use his or her name for such a nondescript building.

In other words, college was not a place to settle in. Everybody I knew was desperate to get out. I graduated in four years with no tuition help from my parents and a student-loan debt of $750, which I paid off in installments of $15 a month. I have to believe that our meager living conditions helped keep our college costs -- and borrowing -- low.

Two recent news stories this week caught my attention. One was a failed attempt in Congress to lower interest rates on some college-loan debt, and the other was about plans to build a beautiful new apartment complex with a swimming pool near the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

I showed my 12-year-old son some renderings of the planned $40-million Douglas Heights private student housing complex at UTC, which will have amenities like a fancy hotel. I tried to imagine being a college student and living at a place that has a resort-like pool with fountains and a bright, airy lobby filled with modern, Scandinavian-style furnishings.

"Hmm," my son said absent-mindedly, quickly turning his attention back to ESPN.

As a parent who is saving to help my two sons with college expenses, I find the rising cost of higher education depressing. I have no philosophical problem with college students having access to cheap loans and great housing -- even fancy digs if they can afford them. My concern is that we have created a college debt bubble that is causing problems that ripple through our economy.

Today, Americans have piled up about $1.2 trillion in college-loan debt. As a nation, our college-loan debt is now higher than our credit-card debt. Almost 20 percent of college graduates have more than $50,000 in debt, according to the government.

Astonishingly, about 2 million people over age 60 still have college-loan debt, and some have even had their Social Security benefits docked to pay off decades' old delinquent college loans, according to a recent report in the New York Times. (If you think Uncle Sam has forgotten about your unpaid government-backed loans from the 1970s, think again.)

The average UTC student, meanwhile, graduates about $21,000 in debt, the Times Free Press has reported.

A bill recently stalled in the U.S. Senate that would have allowed about 25 million people to refinance some college loans taken out before July 2013. Many borrowers would have seen their interest rates essentially cut in half from 7 or 8 percent, to less than 4 percent. The measure fell two votes shy of the 60 needed to pass.

That's too bad for people who could have benefited. But frankly, it is just a Band-Aid for the bigger problem: over-borrowing. I tend to agree with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who has said loan-holders don't need lower interest rates as much as they need better jobs after graduation.

Still, I can't help but believe some students are living above their means on borrowed money while in college. And who can blame them? Many from middle-class families are able to borrow and spend enough to feel little lifestyle regression while they're in school.

Sadly, for many of these students, the shabby living conditions will come later -- when the school loan payments come due and take a bite out of their paychecks. And then, when they need a new loan to afford the rent for a nicer apartment, the only available bankers will be mom and dad.

If that happens, here's a tip from the 1970s you might pass along: Aluminum foil works great on that TV antenna.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

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