Thursday, April 16, 2015

Guest Post : Colleges Cannot Afford Their Own Tuition Bills

One of the biggest financial burdens Americans face is college debt. Student loan debt is higher than the national credit card debt (which is kinda ironic because a lot of people try to pay their bills with credit cards). Even more of a rut-roh is the reality that student loan debt cannot be forgiven upon declaring bankruptcy--you are NEVER getting out of this. And this college-debt burden is not restricted to the 99% (or the complement of the 1%). I recently went on a series of (what will probably retrospectively be "good stories") dates with someone who graduated from a highly-ranked, highly-selective college his GRANDFATHER was president of for twenty years; he "only" had $80,000 of debt left five years after earning his four-year degree. And this was a person who literally and figuratively was grandfathered in and provided with what in academia amounts to an "employee discount" on tuition. And let's not even begin to talk about any law or med-school student. Those 3-4 year post-baccalaureate programs NEVER give students scholarships or stipends. You want to know why your doctor charges $150 for a five-minute visit or why your lawyer charges you for every word he utters? It's because they're up to their eyeballs in debt.

Just so we can say we did, let's talk about public colleges and universities. Many--like those in the university system of Georgia--have a history of giving in-state residents essentially free rides; it used to be that if you had a 3.0 GPA and were an in-state student at any public college in Georgia, you were good to go. The HOPE scholarship (running mostly on lottery funds) would cover your bill. Except…the state started going broke. Oops? What did they do to remedy this situation? They raised the minimum GPA requirement. Instead of a 3.0 for a full ride, you needed a 3.2 (or something like that…You get the idea. Less than 10% increase.). Suddenly, there was an uproar. Critics argued that--among other things--this would prevent students from majoring in STEM subjects, which historically are "tougher" than BA classes and subsequently feature lower average GPAs. Others argued that this would "weed out" lower-income students or first-generation college-goers and those who may not have *the* strongest of education backgrounds. Imagine this: you have a 3.55 high school GPA (qualifying you for a full ride), but from a really craptastic public school. I don't care if it's inner city or the setting for Deliverance. Everyone--whether he admits it or not--knows you are going to struggle to keep that up. You lose HOPE, literally and figuratively, you can't stay in college without loans or at all…and you're out.

Now for the private schools. The ones, in particular, that are well-established (interpret at will). First, why do they care about subsidizing student debt--they're going to get paid anyway, right? Well, it actually does comes down to money. And--unlike a lot of public schools--private schools also care a LOT about how they look. They need to--they can't rely on the state governments or taxes for their money. They rely solely on the ability to convince "everyday people" to give them ridiculous amounts of money. So if you advertise zero debt and no loans, the number of applications (and application fees) you receive is going to shoot through the roof. That is a HUGE money maker. Think of the statistics you always hear: 34295 people applied to be in the Harvard class of 2018 with an application fee of $75 (that means you're being paid almost three million dollars just to CONSIDER applications). And the number of applicants increasing drastically means your acceptance rate is going to decrease which makes your school automatically (yet vacuously) "more selective". And that makes you very prestigious. Oh, and then there's the highly politically incorrect (yet highly realistic) truth that private schools spin this as a way they are "diversifying" their student body. No more is this just a school for old money WASPs, Asian kids whose intelligence no one can deny, and the occasional Jew. Now YOU can attend the same schools the presidents did, the schools where the Nobel prize winners work, and you can't afford it WE'LL PAY THE BILL FOR YOU! This is the American dream! This is democracy, fairness, and equality at their best!

But…and there are of course a few exceptions…even the private schools can't afford this.

The first widely-acknowledged school to start a no-loan/no-debt policy is Princeton. They've done this for close to fifteen years. But it's Princeton. Their endowment is almost 20 BILLION DOLLARS. They are not going anywhere anytime soon and they can take the financial hit. Because it started a trend that made them look extra prestigious, of course others felt the need to follow suit. Ivies such as Dartmouth seconded the emotion. Even the top-tier liberal arts colleges (which still have HIGHLY nontrivial endowments) such as Williams ran to join the cool kids' club. Press releases were issued. The deans and presidents were quoted in Forbes and US News and World Report. The schools were praised for their generosity and forward-thinking. But they hit the same road block that the state colleges of Georgia did; namely, they couldn't handle their own tuition bills. THIS is not highly publicized (so, see the references below) but Dartmouth and Williams both had to suspend their no-loan/zero-debt programs--Williams did it after only three years (so, not even seeing the inaugural class to graduation). Their endowments respectively are $3.4 billion and $2.25 billion. And they could not afford this level of generosity.

What about those still playing ball? My date's highly selective college states on their own websites that 40% of their student body receives need-based financial aid packages from the college, with the average aid package valued at $45,000 a year. With 740 kids that's $33.3 million. A YEAR. Over 5% of their endowment and Lord-knows how much of the general operating budget which also pays for tenure-track positions that keep class sizes low and intimate, and fund study abroad opportunities and bring in guest lecturers. This is not looking very sustainable.

But here's the real kicker. The private schools--including the ever-successful Princeton--frequently lack the ONE caveat the public schools insist upon. That is, they do NOT enforce a GPA minimum beyond that which just constitutes "not failing out". That means they offer academic scholarships to highly prestigious institutes of learning that are not merit-based (or, if you want to be really picky, not merit-REwarded). Does that make sense? Yes, you have to work to get in. Yes, it's almost a lottery that decides whether or not you're in the chosen few. But after you get in, you really don't have to do anything to STAY in? In what alternate universe are the academic rules and regulations of the University of Georgia more strict than those of Princeton?

You could argue that problem will fix itself. Not doing well in school and not having connections will eventually kick students in the rear. Doesn't matter where they went. A friend of mine is a highly intelligent, highly lazy Princeton grad. He has no debt, which is good, because he's essentially unemployable; he's got a GPA so low there's no way to spin it positively on his resume (and so when the question comes up in interviews, the answers are always stellar). He almost failed out. He did not get to know any of his professors (and wasn't doing well in their classes), so his letters of rec are vague at best. He was not involved in any clubs or organizations (because he couldn't afford it in the cases of eating houses or because he was too busy going to the parties the eating houses hosted). But, he's got a degree from Princeton.

Why is this such a big deal? There is an unending list of students willing, wanting, and waiting to go to these "elite" schools; is keeping someone who is not earning their intellectual keep worth it? ESPECIALLY when the bill is so high?