The Students Weigh In
As the scrutiny on the college/lender relationship has intensified, and more allegations of “kickbacks,” improper inducements and stock sales by financial aid officials have come to light, the “student” has consistently been a critical figure in the debate, albeit an anonymous one.
Champions of the ever-broadening inquiry not unjustifiably depict themselves as the voice of the “student,” the defender of “the student.” By exerting legal and public pressure, meaningful reform can ensue -- and “the student,” they say, will no longer be the one paying the price (with interest) for all those back-room deals.
“Across New York and throughout the nation, people are struggling to keep up with the rising costs of college tuition, and allegations of trips and gifts from lenders to higher education officials raise significant concerns,” New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo said in a February statement when he began his inquiry into potential conflicts of interest in the student loan industry. “When making recommendations on how to make tuition more affordable, there must be absolutely no conflict of interest at the expense of students and their families."
Meanwhile, financial aid directors have publicly and repeatedly said that “the student" will only be harmed if all this bad news serves to erode trust in college financial aid officers -- the vast majority of whom, they stress, are highly ethical and committed to making college affordable. If financial aid personnel end up having their hands tied (or tying their own) in order to avoid any appearance of impropriety, "the student" might end up getting barraged with more direct to consumer information, they say -- and worse deals.
Amid all this, one key question has almost been overlooked: Frankly, Andrew Cuomo, do students give a damn?
Well, it seems the short answer so far is ... kinda. They certainly care about their own loans, and college affordability -- though they may not be inclined to follow the intricate allegations at campuses that aren't their own and regarding an industry that isn't exactly perceived as user-friendly.
On the one hand, news of alleged conflicts of interest at colleges nationwide hasn't seemed to cross many parents' and students' radar screens so far, despite some prominent national news coverage. “We haven’t received one phone call from a parent or student,” said Sarah Bauder, director of the office of financial aid at the University of Maryland at College Park. Nor have any of the financial aid directors on a listserv she's involved in heard a peep. And no student group at Maryland has contacted Bauder to express concern about what's happening on the national stage either -- not even the student newspaper.
“It’s getting to an individual level now,” Bauder said. “If I were sitting at Johns Hopkins [where news broke Monday that the financial aid director, Ellen Frishberg, had been paid $65,000 in consulting fees and $1,200 in travel expenses since 2002], I would probably say yes, because it’s been highlighted.”
If the students filtering in and out of Maryland’s financial services office Wednesday were at all representative, it seems as though many students are just barely aware of the developments -- having heard just a sound bite on the subject that triggered a flicker of concern -- and others are altogether out of the loop. But while some students are fairly apathetic about the whole topic, others expressed concern about the news and, in fact, did seem to give a damn. After all, student loans are pretty personal things to those who know they'll be paying theirs off someday.
“I’m not really that aware of the system, which is kind of shameful because I’m in it,” said Rowena Njie, a junior. A community college transfer student who kept the same lender when she came to Maryland, she said that she’s curious to learn more about the entire process: “If they’re ripping anyone off, I would like to know. They’re not going to tell me they’re ripping me off, are they?”
“I saw it on PBS last night," added Zhengrong Ma, an M.B.A. student at Maryland who said that he was just now becoming aware of what was happening nationally. He said Cuomo and the members of Congress looking into the industry "want a transparent loan system. I think a transparent system is important.”
“I heard it on NPR, they were talking about it, some schools were telling students to get some loans and getting some money from the lenders, “ said Thomas Rumeau, a senior. “I find this industry to be so complicated,” he said, explaining that he depends on his university to screen lenders for him and that he picked his provider off Maryland's preferred lender list basically by its name alone.
“I still feel confident” in Maryland’s guidance, he said, “But as I said before, because of the [other] schools, I might be more interested about it, to see if the school finds the right loans for us.”
The students seemed particularly interested in this topic of full disclosure, which Bauder said is one of the major reforms she thinks will end up resulting from the controversy. Universities, she said, will probably have to make very clear to students how and why lenders end up on their preferred lender lists (at Maryland, the seven lenders are chosen for "technology, customer service and pricing" -- all offer zero fees to students).
“I don’t think that students not being on top of the scandal is evidence that it doesn’t matter or doesn’t affect them," said Luke Swarthout, director of the State PIRGs Higher Education Project. Students, he said, might not care about the scandals per se, but they care to the degree that they could reflect underlying structural problems they're paying for as borrowers.
"The extent to which students do care, and the extent to which we really care, is that this is a system that isn’t providing students with the best opportunities, the cheapest loans and the best deals and where billions of dollars are being tied up in inefficiency," Swarthout said.
In fact, while some Maryland students seemed genuinely, if somewhat passively, concerned to find out more about what was happening nationally, others quite politely said Wednesday they had enough to worry about already, thanks very much. One second-year student who didn’t give his name (“I don’t like being quoted,” he said) seemed perfectly content with his current lender, which his mother researched. “It doesn’t really affect me that much,” he said of the developments. “It’s more important to me that I continue getting financial aid and going to college.”
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