The student debt crisis: what does it mean and is it real? These questions have become prominent in the media recently and it seems as though everyone has a different opinion about the right answer. The New York Times Magazine ran a June 22 cover feature that painted a largely bleak picture of the “boomerang generation”—students who return home after college—alongside a photo essay with thumbnail profiles of students burdened with debt living with their parents. Two days later the Times ran another story describing the student debt crisis as overblown by the media and distracting from real issues. Which is it?
The real answer is that both views are true.
When speaking about Wilson College’s commitment to value and affordability, I often ask people to respond to following question: “What do you think the average amount of student debt is for undergraduates?” Without exception, most people respond that students carry $50,000 or more in debt, with many believing the level to be above $100,000. The answer, according to the Student Debt Project, is $29,400.* While not an insignificant amount, it is much lower than the public perception.
It isn’t surprising that people are misinformed on the topic. Tuition costs and student debt have become highly politicized topics and easy fodder for media outlets. Of the seven students profiled in the New York Times Magazine photo essay, five of them had debt levels between $40,000 and $90,000, while two—the last two presented—were between $10,000 and $12,000. While student debt is real, there is often a part to this debate that is missing—or misunderstood. Value.
Value in higher education is often lost in a sea of statistics. Even studies that support the value of a college degree, like the recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, present the argument in terms of career earnings. But the real value of a college degree is an equation of tangible and intangible elements, and to understand it requires us to look beyond the numbers.
College is a time of incredible personal and intellectual growth for students. The experience, especially that of a residential liberal arts college program, is not just a passive exercise in absorbing information and theory, it is about active learning. Learning how to think and creatively solve problems. Learning how to communicate and interact with others. Learning about yourself and considering your future. Perhaps the most important part of this experience, the part that gives the college experience true weight, is the relationships and connections that students form, particularly with professors.
A faculty body like Wilson’s cares about the individual student and works closely to guide each through her education, helps her find internships, listens to her struggles and shares in her accomplishments. This part of college is much harder to quantify and is easy for many to dismiss. After all, doesn’t every graduate have this experience? The answer to that question is not yes or no—and that brings us to the hard part of the equation.
Value in a college education is a partnership. Colleges provide worthwhile academic and co-curricular opportunities, but the quality of the experience is directly affected by the involvement and engagement of the individual student. But a student’s responsibility for their education and their student debt doesn’t begin at first-year orientation. Students who apply themselves to achieve academically and are involved in co-curricular activities in high school are not only better prepared to succeed in college, but they also earn improved scholarship and financial aid opportunities. Once in college, these same responsibilities continue. Maintaining academic performance maintains financial aid, and taking advantage of co-curricular options prepares students for life after graduation.
There has been much talk about “disruptive change” in higher education—a rethinking of the traditional ways colleges operate and deliver an education—with cost and debt being a large part of that discussion. This is where colleges need to take responsibility and it is where the partnership between student and institution continues. Colleges do have a responsibility to help control costs and to limit student debt, and initiatives at Wilson help to illustrate how disruptive—or what we used to call creative—thinking helps to address this issue.
Many colleges and universities, including Wilson College, have reduced or reset tuition in the past two years. While this helps with costs, on its own the impact is moderate and does not necessarily address debt in a meaningful way. At Wilson, students who maintain good academic standing and are engaged campus community members may enter a student debt buyback program, which rewards students who graduate in four years for their commitment. Through this program, students can earn between $3,000 and $10,000 toward their federal student debt upon graduation.
The program has two additional elements important in limiting debt. Students who want to take advantage of the program sign a pledge before enrolling to only borrow what is necessary to meet educational expenses. Student loans have become a business and, as with any business, loan agencies and banks look for ways to make money. This has led to the “upselling” of loans to include money for items beyond educational costs and is another contributing factor in student debt.
The other key element of the buyback program is graduation in four years. Somewhere along the way, the standard for graduation rates became six years. With this as the standard, we’ve seen a reduced expectation among students to graduate in four years. That is a contributing factor in student debt because it adds two years of tuition and costs to the bottom line—and is the primary reason our debt buyback program requires graduation in four years.
But the College’s responsibility to our partnership with students and our commitment to value does not end there.
Understanding the cost (or as some might say, the financial consequence) of college is another critically important part of the equation. All prospective students at Wilson receive individual financial aid counseling to help them understand what their debt levels will be at graduation and they take financial literacy courses in both their freshman and senior years. These courses teach students to examine the salary levels of their chosen fields, the cost of living in the areas where they would like to live and teaches them how to budget and manage their money in those circumstances.
While we continue to look for ways to build upon our commitment to the value equation, there are others that play roles in this partnership as well. State governments have a large role to play. Whether it is through scholarship programs for low-income and first-generation students or direct budget funding of state institutions, they have a vested interest in higher education. In announcing a new scholarship program this spring, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett said, “Every dollar invested in a child is a dollar invested in the future of the Commonwealth.” The Pennsylvania Legislature recently passed a budget that includes the Ready to Succeed Scholarship program. This is a scholarship program for middle-income students and is an important development both for Wilson and our students.
A common misperception of Wilson—and with private liberal arts colleges in general—is that we primarily serve a wealthy population, but this is far from reality. Wilson’s enrollment has a median family income of $74,000, includes more than 30 percent first-generation students and serves a student population in which 44 percent are eligible for Pell Grants—federal grants awarded to moderate- and low-income families. And 97 percent of our students receive some form of aid from more than 100 scholarships and other aid opportunities provided by the College. The programs we have in place, along with the Ready to Succeed Scholarships, open Wilson to students who may have thought it out of their reach, making the College a more manageable reality for their future.
Today, both colleges and students are stepping forward and accepting the mantle of responsibility with regard to controlling costs and reducing student debt. While we rightly tend to controlling costs and debt, let us not lose sight of the intangible nature of value. It is, after all, the very foundation of liberal arts education.
* For the Class of 2012, 71 percent of graduates hold an average of $29,400 in debt. Project on Student Debt