The Secret Weapon Against Student Loan Debt?

Every Saturday morning at 9:00, Lisa tutors my 10-year old son. With her round smiling face, Lisa draws him into his books and holds a bookmark under the words to keep his eyes from jumping ahead in the text. Lisa wants to be a special education teacher. I imagine she'll be very good at it, once she finishes her undergraduate education.

Lisa still has another three years of college, despite the fact that she's been in school full time for five years. All those years in college have been very expensive — tuition, room and board, books, transportation, as well as years lost earning a salary. Although she's now living at home to save money, she's facing at least $30,000 in debt, which will take a long time to pay off with a teacher's salary.

Lisa is not alone. She is part of the Student Loan Generation. Two-thirds of college seniors graduated with loans in 2010, and they carried an average of $25,250 in debt.

Are colleges – and faculty in particular — doing enough to help students earn their BA's with a limited amount of debt? I tried to chip away at this huge question by talking to several faculty advisors over the summer.

more here


46 thoughts on “The Secret Weapon Against Student Loan Debt?

  1. Charles Blow had a column this week thanking god (but really it’s America and the governmnent) for Big Bird and PBS, which he credited with having taught him life lessons he still relies on. while his parents work.
    I remember thinking I wanted to thank the governmnent for Pell grants, public schools, and libraries.
    So, yes, thanks, to the American people, and our government.

  2. The back story on this article…
    Over the summer, a new glossy magazine aimed at the higher ed community asked me to write this article. Offered me $1,500, if I wrote an article on this topic. I did the interviews and then the magazine folded. They gave me $800 and sent me on my way. I reworked it for the Atlantic, but the topic is too insider-ish for a mainstream publication. It’s falling flat. I should have given it to the Chronicle. Oh, well. Live and learn.

  3. I’m a little confused as to why Lisa has been a full time student for 5 years and still doesn’t have an undergraduate degree. Would you please clarify for me?

  4. The thing that blows my mind when advising students is that no one has ever told them that in order to graduate in 4 years, they need to take 5 classes a semester. They come in, registered for 4 classes, and have NO idea. I’m often the first person that tells them this. And sometimes, when I get students who have changed majors, they haven’t heard this advice and they’re juniors or seniors. I think kids from privileged backgrounds know this or get this information somewhere, but kids without that family support don’t know it. It’s really a shame that no one is teaching these kids the basic mechanics of how to get out of college – take as few loans as possible, take a full class load every semester, etc. Maybe we need to develop a MOOC for this – 😉

  5. Another thing that prevents students from graduating in 4 years–the need to take developmental (ie remedial) classes, which don’t count to graduation.

  6. Absolutely. People keep saying that the cure to student loan debt is give out more loans. NO!!! The problem is the high cost of colleges and the fact that some kids don’t know how to spend their money properly. Those are the kids who also don’t have the SAT scores that will give them access to grant money. They are going to so-so private colleges, when there’s a public college of equivilent value down the block. They aren’t mature enough to make long term decisions. They’re just kids, really. They don’t have educated, blog-reading parents who can give them guidance.

  7. I’m going to a meeting at my university this afternoon about transfer credits and articulation agreements. In the PA public universities, there is a great push to work on the acceptance of transfer credits so that we can get students through the system.

  8. Something that trips students up at my university: major programs that are overly intricate, with lots of requirements, including courses not offered frequently enough. And these are not BS programs. The state just said we can’t have these excessive requirements for BAs so that should help. So many of the older profs want to gobble up every credit hour.
    I am a new advisor. We don’t have a major in my subject, so I never had to advise, but several years ago we approved a BA in liberal studies and I was given liberal studies students to advise. Students are flocking to this after they leave majors where they f can’t get all the required courses for whatever reason. It may not be the best major in the world, but at least it gets the students out.

  9. OK, I’m going to be a bit harsh here. I am a college teacher and it is simply not my job to manage student finances. To do so would require a fairly detailed understanding of each student’s personal financial history and that is way, way outside my purview. It is also not my job to get my students jobs. Again, I know very little about job markets, and have not been on a job market in the past 24 years. I know what my job is. It is to get them to begin to understand ancient Chinese philosophy. Yes, I realize that that is a basically useless endeavor, at least in terms of the contemporary American economy. I make no promises that what I do will help them materially. I am, however, very sure that it will help some of them intellectually and, even, emotionally. Is it worth it in terms of money? Not in any strict accounting sense. But, in an intellectual sense, it has a certain value.
    Liberal arts may seem like a luxury. Historically it was the domain of the elite. Making liberal arts accessible to a wider swath of economic society is a good thing. It has its benefits. But is has never been a direct avenue to employment. In the past, the power elite sent their kids to the Ivies to read Ovid and Gibbon… and then they went to work in daddy’s firm. There are problems in higher education today certainly, but the larger problem students face in getting jobs is not the academy, but the economy, which has transformed significantly in the past fifty years.

  10. It’s ok, sam. You can be harsh.
    Yeah, I know it’s not the job of college advisors to help kids with their finances. I said that upfront in the article and quoted other professors saying the same thing. The interesting thing is that professors were indirectly helping the kids anyway and had some good insights into why kids were screwing up.
    My conclusion was that kids needed more help that professors could give and that they needed help from elsewhere. Where I don’t know. Maybe high school guidance counselors or outside groups.
    Kids like Lisa aren’t having problems, because of the economy. They are leaving college with a lot of debt, because they have made a series of bad decisions.

  11. I was looking at functional illiteracy in the US (shockingly high), but higher and maybe even more important is functional inumeracy, which contributes to problems like not understanding even the basic math or general principles behind a loan. I agree that, if they’re not already, colleges should be providing more financial advising, but like many issues, it’s a large burden to ask colleges to make up for 12 years of inadequacy for things that should have been learned much earlier. Students should be required to take personal finance starting much younger, perhaps in middle school. My home state used to have a personal finance requirement to graduate HS, but they eliminated it. I was happy about it at the time but maybe it would be a good idea, if not to require a class, then to have a test on finances that kids who fail need to take a class for.

  12. P.S. I hope it wasn’t me being unclear, but Swarthmore students write that essay in their sophmore year, and it traditionally has *not* asked them to meditate on their choice of major in relation to their long-term aspirations (career or otherwise). (It has conventionally just served as a vehicle for getting students to plan their junior and senior years fully.) We started doing the expanded version last year and it wasn’t a big hit with anyone because we don’t do that kind of thinking much anywhere else. I can see the value to the exercise potentially but it takes more thorough institutional planning and contemplation than we’ve given it to date.

  13. Spending 200K on learning about Chinese philosophy is unquestionably a luxury. And, though it might be a life enhancing luxury, a child should only spend that money if a child can afford it. I do agree that professors in the classroom can’t be playing the role of financial advisers — or mortgage brokers. But, they can encourage the children to think about their futures, and how the decisions they are making now will influence those futures. They can’t tell a kid they can’t afford to spend the money, but they can tell them that a degree in Chinese philosophy is unlikely to enhance their career prospects, and they should think about where they see themselves.
    As taxpayers, we can question whether feeding this luxury spending with non-dischargeable student loans is a wise spending decision. If, as a society, we want Chinese philosophy classes to be offered, we should pay for them ourselves, not have 18 year olds take on a debt burden to fund the class/degree. The agreement in shifting the burden to loans was that the benefit would accrue personally, and economically (because otherwise they couldn’t pay back the loan).
    Changing the student loan calculus would force kids to realize that they are buying a luxury good, not an investment.

  14. Philosophy has pretty much saved my life emotionally, so I’ll veer off topic with that. Go philosophy profs.
    As for the main topic my father had the same tenured position for his entire career and now receives a secure pension indexed to inflation. Although he’s not in debt (quite the reverse), if he did have a vestigial mortgage or something, he would be fine because he knows what his income will be, for life. This is quite different from the kind of retirement I am looking at.
    I agree with the article that profs helping kids get degrees efficiently and get out impacts on debt and making that explicit is good. But I don’t think professors are in a position to go beyond that. I liked the background on the piece too. Great kill fee. 🙂

  15. The thing is, bj, that a liberal arts education is empirically, demonstrably a better preparation for many professional careers or entrepreneurial careers as they are and will be in the 21st Century than a narrowly pre-professional or vocationally-specific education. Both because most professions and business start-ups call for a non-specific set of skills, insights and abilities and because the nature of professional employment is and will continue to change rapidly.
    And a liberal arts education means that there’s no specific subject which is intrinsically, inevitably less or more likely to be grist for the mill. It might be that there’s a greater probability of a computer scientist showing students how to use Python as a flexible, imaginative tool for thinking about and working in the world, as only one example of code or computing, but there’s no guarantee that he/she will do so. There might be a greater probability that a specialist in Chinese philosophy will not teach the subject in a way that opens up insights into many other subjects and ways of thinking, but there’s no reason why they can’t.
    Liberal arts education is not a luxury. If it feels that way to some people, it’s because it’s not being offered by higher education institutions in a way that would make its non-luxuriousness clearer. But spending a lot on the right kind of liberal arts education is at least as good a bet as spending on a narrowly pre-law, pre-business, pre-medical, pre-dentistry, pre-vetrinary, pre-plumbing etc. education and I think demonstrably is a *better* bet. Narrowly vocational or pre-professional training should be (but often isn’t) much cheaper to offer, and at a much much much lower price point, its disadvantages might begin to look like a good buy. But an ambitious kid who wants to be a lawyer who can speak well, write well, think well, imagine strategies of argument and persuasion, see business opportunities in the legal profession, manage an office or a range of employees, and so on, is probably as well advised to take a few classes on Chinese philosophy as he/she is to take a few classes on Constitutional law or microeconomics.

  16. Timothy — I’m actually fully open to the argument that a liberal arts degree is solid preparation for being productive (economically, creatively, ethically) in our modern world. But, it’s a different argument than supporting the degree for an individual because the studies are good for society. If one is selling (and yes, when people are paying, you are selling), a liberal arts education as preparation for a future life, you have to tell people how it will be preparation, show them how it has worked.
    I hate pre-anything degrees. I also think that performance/production art degrees (film, photography, fine arts, performing music, performing dance/drama) have a more difficult future to justify than liberal arts.
    I also think that STEM degrees are oversold on practicality (especially the vaguer new degrees, like environmental science or even neuroscience). And, I think the narrowly defined technical courses (how to program in Python) are often oversold as well in the modern world, where Python will be replaced by Anaconda soon enough.
    So I’m not dissing the liberal arts degrees or broad education — I’m arguing that when we are asking a student to pay for something, we’re obliged to explain to them how their payment will benefit them. I also suspect, but worry that I don’t have sufficient breadth knowledge/experience, that the broad education isn’t right for every mind.

  17. So, I’m thinking about both the theoretical and the real “Lisa,” and I’m thinking about what advice I would give her if I was her career adviser, at any point in her decision-making process from when she was an 18 year old high school graduate to being a, say, 23-year-old with lots of non-transferable credits and debt and no degree.
    Part of the advice has to be, “Your going to next half century doing a job, so make sure you are trying to get a job you want.”
    What do you tell the 18 year old Lisa who wants to get an Associates Degree is fashion because her dream is to be a fashion designer? Telling her that she can take out $10K in loans seems reasonable at this point.
    What do you tell the 20 year old Lisa who has the Associates Degree and either can’t get a job, or else has discovered that fashion is not her dream so much any more? Her new dream is to be a teacher, but none of her credits transfer. Do you tell her not to give up on your dream, even if you need to take out another $10K in loans, or do you tell her to give up and get a paralegal certificate, even though she doesn’t really want to do that for the next 40-50 years?
    What do you tell 22 year old Lisa when her financial situation changes and the extra $10K in loans isn’t enough? Do you tell her to live and home and go to a cheaper school and continue to take out the minimum possible number of loans, or do you tell her to give up on her dreams and take a crummy desk job that she doesn’t want?
    We’re calling these choices that kids make “a series of bad choices,” but they are really just a serious of choices that didn’t turn out well, and necessitated making different choices.
    For every “Lisa,” there is probably a kids with an Associates Degree working in the fashion industry with a manageable $10K in debt and loving it. For every “Lisa” who doesn’t like fashion and went back for a teaching degree, there is probably a kid who got a teacher’s certificate and now is working as a teacher somewhere in Rhode Island.
    And then there’s the real Lisa, and we’re wondering why no one gave her the proper advise that would keep her from getting to her current “worst case” scenario, and I’m wondering what advise to give her today. She’s still young. If she’s only 23, there’s a reasonable chance that she will be working twice that long again, and I can’t imagine telling her that she shouldn’t pursue what she wants to do for the next 46 years.
    I guess I’m not sure that she was really given bad advice over the years. She certainly doesn’t understand everything, but $30K in debt and half way to special ed training isn’t exactly $200K for a Masters in puppetry.

  18. @Laura,
    I think the economy does matter. Why do “middle class” (a rather elastic category…) families have trouble accessing higher education? Yes, costs are high. But also, their real wages have stagnated for decades. The contemporary American economy in an incredible creator and reproducer of inequality. And the defenders of that growing inequality, Ayn Rand acolytes like Paul Ryan, resist even the most modest efforts to counteract it. Focusing only on the micro-level decision making of the myriad Lisas of the world can distract us from the macro-level political economic constraints.

  19. Credits should transfer. If an accredited institution isn’t willing to transfer credits earned at another accredited institution, one might wonder, why? Is it a defense of excellence, or a desire to make the students pay twice or thrice for the same courses?
    Shannon, I suspect the middle class parents and students divide the number of courses required for graduation by four.
    Wouldn’t it make sense for high school teachers to help their seniors lay out their college courses in the last month of high school? Many high schools graduate their seniors before the end of the school year. Keep them a week or so longer, and arrange teacher-student conferences to plan. It’d be the equivalent of a middle-class parent sitting down with her kiddo to pick the courses needed for a Puppetry major. Don’t wait until they arrive on campus in September, having signed up for the wrong courses.
    I’m very tired of the “why liberal arts” debate. I’d like someone to start the “why not liberal arts?” debate. American high schools aren’t teaching the art of coherent writing and thinking well enough that students can stop learning how to write and analyze written work.

  20. “Credits should transfer” is vague enough to seem obvious without being helpful. If my Chem I doesn’t teach all the same stuff as your Chem I, we could agree on general principles that my credit should transfer, but I would still fail Chem 2 if you let me register for it. Does it de-value a degree from Princeton if it was earned with the first seven semesters transferred from Montclair State?
    I probably agree with you on a lot of specifics, but I also want my special Ed teacher to have learned all the stuff, without anything falling through the course label cracks.

  21. Credits should transfer.
    They should where possible, but letting schools vary the criteria for a degree means that there is always the possibility the credits will either be too different to match or that the credits won’t be useful for the degree at the second school.

  22. Wow. Great comments. I’m in a rush, so a couple of quick responses right now. Better responses later.
    1. re: the liberal arts major. In Lisa’s case, she would have been better off getting a general AA at a community college and then transferring to a local public college with a liberal arts major. She could have gone on to get a MA in education later. She would have ended up with 6 years in school with a BA and MA, rather than a BA in 8 years. For kids who are not absolutely, 100% sure what they want to do with their lives, a liberal arts degree is the way to go. Switching majors late in the game is a big problem for many students.
    Sorry but that’s a very utilitarian reason to support the liberal arts, but there you go.
    2. Transferring is a big problem, because requirements differ. Some schools are on a quarter system, others a trimester. And nobody is going to accept classes in fashion at a liberal arts college.
    3. Yes, the economy does matter in a indirect way. State colleges have had to raise tuition and parents can offer less support. With no guarenteed job at the end of college, the default rate has skyrocketed. But even in this crappy economy, it is possible to get a college education at a reasonable price tag, if you make smart decisions. Even marginal students can get through school without excessive debt, by doing the community college + local public college + done in 4 years route.
    4. Ack, sorry, Tim, for the errors. Should have fact checked that with you.
    5. re:going for your dreams v. being realistic. Spending 2 years on a degree that will not give you any credits that can transfer to another school is risky. If people make that choice knowing the risks, then fine. Go for it. I just want to make sure that people take informed risks. If people can go through different, and safer, educational routes to arrive at the same end point, then they should do it.

  23. It might be that there’s a greater probability of a computer scientist showing students how to use Python as a flexible, imaginative tool for thinking about and working in the world, as only one example of code or computing, but there’s no guarantee that he/she will do so.
    There are (and were) enormous tensions here even within CS education. In my experience the difference between an elite CS program and a lower-tier one is that immediately hirable buzzwords are an unintentional (and usually rare) side-effect of an education at the former, while they may well be the entire point of the latter sort of program. I remember some of my fellow students railing about the unemployable useless obscurity of the language used for the in-major intro CS class — a language that later became the conceptual basis of Javascript. I wonder if their opinions about the “impracticality” of the department have changed.

  24. If my Chem I doesn’t teach all the same stuff as your Chem I, we could agree on general principles that my credit should transfer, but I would still fail Chem 2 if you let me register for it. Does it de-value a degree from Princeton if it was earned with the first seven semesters transferred from Montclair State?
    Theoretically, I don’t think it devalues the Princeton degree. If they accept the student, they should accept the credits. Practically, Princeton doesn’t accept undergraduate transfer students, so the point is moot.
    Does it devalue the degree from one state college if some of the courses were completed at a similar college in another state? People transfer colleges for all kinds of reasons. A couple get married, and move to another state for work.
    Let’s say a student starts at Primus College. She starts with Accounting, Freshman Comp, Geology, a Social Science class and a music appreciation course. She then transfers to Secundus College. She intends to major in French. Why should it matter if her Geology course at Secundus used the same text as the Geology course at Primus? Can she not at least use the courses to fulfill graduation requirements outside her major?

  25. For kids who are not absolutely, 100% sure what they want to do with their lives, a liberal arts degree is the way to go.
    So, every 18 year old in the history of the world?
    On the other side of the story, I sort of “defaulted” into liberal arts, since I was undecided coming into college. I took a bunch of different types of classes my Freshman year, with the idea of declaring first semester Sophomore year based on what I liked the most.
    Had I been better advised I would have known (although I wouldn’t have known what to do with that knowledge) that people who majored in Physics generally had 4 classes towards their major by the end of their Freshman year. I had one. So, while Physics was on the mental short list, it never actually had a chance of winning, since I was nowhere near ready to declare it a sure thing and devote half my schedule to it in my first semester.
    Every decision you make invariably shuts out a bunch of other decisions, or at least makes them harder to achieve (Physics major in 5 or 6 years? Nah . . . Just declare English, which I liked too.) But you by the time you are 18, you have to start making decisions.
    I am STILL making decisions 20 years later than I’m not absolutely 100% sure about and will limit not only my options in the future, but also those of my family. (No, I will not take that promotion. No, I will not sign you up for Sunday Soccer. Yes, I will splurge on this unnecessary selfish purchase even though it will limit my ability to buy something else.)
    If you look at your own personal successful role model, and figure out how she got where she got, you will probably see that a bunch of low probability (25%? 50%?) bets paid off for them that may not have been strictly financially rational. But, that’s life.

  26. For timely graduation from state/public colleges, funding for the college is key. Not only to keep tuition down, but also, as someone mentioned, to allow schools to offer enough of the courses people need when they need them. My foster brother works full time and has been going to college on and off for about 10ish years but has never graduated, and has switched his major about 6 times, in part because he’d get pretty far in a program and then the class he’d need would only be offered during work hours, and he can’t take time off of his job, as its well-paying and he’s the breadwinner for multiple family members. In less dramatic situations, I definitely know of people (UC schools seem particularly bad) who’ve been held up for years because the class they need is full and they can’t get in, even though they’re a senior, or the class is only offered every 4 years and they missed it when they were a sophomore. Foresight is good, but sometimes graduating on time requires hindsight level of foresight, and you can’t plan for everything, especially not when you’re at an age when you might not really know what your interests are, or they might change dramatically.
    I think the extent to which professors can matter is in flexibility with meeting requirements and being willing to make reasonable accommodation for students in good standing. I added a second major after I finished coursework my senior year and realized I had 11 credits in my minor (10 credits were necessary for a major), and had fulfilled all but one of the class requirements. After sitting down with the head of the department, they agreed to let me count a different but somewhat related class in place of the requirement, take the major exam, and do a double major. Likewise, I decided to do a joint PhD in my 2nd year, and my 2nd discipline has been very accommodating to letting me count certain courses from my first discipline as bureaucratic hoop jumping (e.g. I don’t need to take 2 separate proposal writing courses, even though the two courses are quite different).
    I also think it’s very good advice to take general ed credits if you’re not sure what you want to do rather than something professional and highly specialized. However, as Ragtime points out, Lisa might have been absolutely sure at 18 she wanted to go into fashion, and it’s hard to predict how your life will change and plan ahead when you appear to have a plan that works fine.

  27. Oh, on Ragtime’s new comment, maybe it was just where/when I grew up, but my whole childhood, I grew up hearing stories along the lines of, “I was going to do X, but then suddenly this happened, and I followed my dream and switched life course 180 degrees and now I’m happy.” My childhood hero was paleoanthropologist Donald Johansson, who discovered Lucy. I remember going to hear him talk as a kid, and one thing that really stuck with me at age 9 was how he had been a physics major, but his senior year something happened and convinced him to study human evolution, so he gave up physics on the spot. He’s one of most successful and famous people in his rather obscure field, but he could have ended up like Lisa and then we’d be saying his decisions were poor, and objectively they might have been. It’s always easy to construct a teleological narrative of your life in retrospect, but it’s hard to know how it’s playing out in the moment.

  28. “Lisa” wanted to be a manager in a retail store. She needed an AA at a local community college for that, not a degree in fashion. She wasn’t planning on designing the clothes herself. She certainly did not have to go to an out of state college for that either. Someone COULD have told her that before she started, but she honestly did not know.

  29. I’m sure, as Tolstoy said, that happy graduates are all alike, and unhappy non-grads are all unhappy in their own way, but it has been my experience that the working class no-college mind-set tends to be of the form: “Why would you want to go all the way over there and do X? We’ve been staying here and doing Y for generations, and it has always worked for us!”
    I’m not sure how, exactly, one makes the opposite mistake, of accidentally moving 200 miles away from home and going to a more expensive school. In other areas of life, the problems of the poor often involve under-investment in oneself, not over-investment. Meanwhile, one should never underestimate the need for an 18 year old to “not live at home,” at any cost.
    In any event your article says, “After deciding that fashion wasn’t the right career choice for herself, she transferred to Rhode Island College . . .” That potentially covers a wide range of issues. She never got the Associate’s Degree because the classes were too hard/ too boring? She got the Degree in two years, but Nordstrom’s wasn’t hiring? She started working in retail, and suddenly realized the first time she had to deal with an unhappy customer why no one ever wants to work retail?
    I don’t think there’s necessarily an option here that makes me think Lisa was making wiser/ more foolish decisions. But an AA in Liberal Arts at a local Community College wouldn’t have gotten her any Special Ed credits either, so we’d fix (part of) the money problem, but still be little closer to a degree.

  30. it has been my experience that the working class no-college mind-set tends to be of the form: “Why would you want to go all the way over there and do X? We’ve been staying here and doing Y for generations, and it has always worked for us!”
    This is absolutely NOT true. Steve and I both have tons of cousins who are first generation college students. First of all, they are all making the same kind of mistakes, like taking too long to graduate. The administrator at the UofT said the same thing. Second, their parents are pushing them to pursue their dreams and go to college. However, their parents do not have the tools to help them navigate the college bureaucracy or to help them make the right choices.

  31. Hi Laura – your article caught my eye because of Lisa, the JWU grad. Last month Johnson & Wales University announced the introduction of a new financial literacy tool for students and families. It’s called iGrad, and it’s a full-service, online advisory tool (articles, videos, games) designed to teach students and their families behaviors needed to become savvy and successful consumers. JWU Chancellor John Bowen is leading a university-wide effort to incorporate iGrad into the student consciousness. He’s asked for a large group of employee ambassadors to work with and advise students on their financial choices. This tool can help students like Lisa manage their student debt.

  32. First of all, they are all making the same kind of mistakes, like taking too long to graduate. The administrator at the UofT said the same thing. Second, their parents are pushing them to pursue their dreams and go to college.
    Absolutely taking too long to graduate is a problem. And absolutely pushing them to college without enough information/ support. I don’t disagree with any of that.
    Where I disagree, I guess, is the schools they are choosing. We’ve got tons of first generation college student cousins, too (Establishing lower class cred) And it is all 3 semesters at Burlington County Community College (drop out; no degree) or one semester at Camden County College (then take time off to work — going back soon, I swear!) or a couple of classes at University of Phoenix (two more classes and I can qualify for that promotion!).
    What struck me as odd was going to get an Associate’s Degree out of state. I haven’t seen anyone do that who didn’t first go up early to establish residency.

  33. I haven’t read all the comments on the Atlantic, but wanted to mention a related problem we see at my less expensive regionally-focused state school: students working 30-40 hours a week so that they don’t have to take out loans and thus not doing as well academically as they could or should. I get that sometimes this works out fine – really bright students taking my gened class pass/fail and barely scraping through, so that they can ace their accountancy or biology classes and still graduate – but for some it leads to academic failure and dropouts, a longer time to degree, and/or a degree that will look pretty bad to employers. I’m not sure that everyone should fear graduating with even $5-10k in loans.

  34. I’m not sure how, exactly, one makes the opposite mistake, of accidentally moving 200 miles away from home and going to a more expensive school.
    Some (many?) kids want to get out of Dodge, i.e., move away from home. I have a cousin who did that–joined ROTC and the Marines, and rarely returns to see his parents for visits. They aren’t estranged, but he chose to create physical distance between himself and his loving but domineering father.
    It may depend on the schools’ offer. Many of the postcards and letters arriving for my senior mention merit scholarships. If a student’s grades and scores are high enough, an out-of-state school might not be more expensive than the local school. Of course, there are all sorts of catches, such as scholarships linked to GPA. If you’re a straight-A student at your local high school, you might expect to do well at college–which could be an expensive mistake.

  35. Amanda’s comment at the Atlantic site was horrifying -but not surprising. Even Harvard has been described as a huge investment fund that happens to have university as part of its portfolio. The goals of college administrators aren’t necessarily aligned with those of students or the taxpayers funding the loans.
    I worked briefly for a financial services company. The stringent rules for full disclosure to investors is the one thing that stayed with me from that job.
    The government, who provides the bulk of the funds, needs to require full disclosure from the schools, require them to, for example, give each student a statement each semester detailing the total amount of their loans, the monthly payment and number of payments required for payoff, and another statement detailing the total number of credits they have and requirements they’ve fulfilled, and how many credits and requirements they have left to graduate.
    Advising is well and good, but there is no guarantee of decent advisors, especially if we’re recruiting faculty whose specialty is not financial aid.
    We also need to require that required classes are offered frequently enough for students to graduate or the school must accept a substition. A complaint by a student who is still waiting to take Whatever 622 after a few years should trigger a huge pain in the ass investigation for the school and a huge fine – larger than it would cost to run the class – if it’s proven they’ve acted in bad faith.

  36. Congrats on getting the NPR interview – that’s very cool. You might want to look at what universities are already doing to involve faculty in this issue; my university is now putting together a 1-credit University 100-type class to introduce students to the “basics of college.” It’s kind of a mess, but one thing they’ve mentioned is a week on money management, which I assume will include some time on student loans. I think this is modelled on similar courses at other schools.

  37. One other challenge with transfer credits is that more and more kids are going to community colleges for a year or two before coming to a university. Sometimes the curriculum structure is not well thought out there, or sometimes it’s just less appropriate as preparation. So, for example, most 4 years now teach an introduction to Western religions and an introduction to Eastern, but at CCs you often get a intro to world religions and it doesn’t map onto our classes (though you can still get gen ed credit).
    I know one very bright student who spent her first year at a CC and researched very carefully what courses would transfer to our school (which she had planned in advance to attend). But I bet she’s one of few who a) has a plan like that and b) knows that it’s necessary to do that kind of research.

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