The sales pitch is enticing: Let students go to college for "free" and ask them to pay later by taxing a percentage of their incomes once they have jobs. The money coming in from graduates, then pays "forward," covering college costs for current students and alleviating the fear of debt that keeps many college-qualified students from even applying and that discourages college graduates from pursuing careers that may not have high salaries.
That’s the seductive premise behind Pay It Forward, billed as a "debt-free" approach to higher education, currently under consideration in Oregon. But like many sales pitches meant to lure consumers, Pay It Forward provides a superficial "fix" that has more downsides than up, thereby masking the real problems in higher education financing.
There is no disputing that higher education is facing a crisis of affordability. State funding per student has dropped to its lowest level in 25 years, shifting much of the financial responsibility for college costs to students and their families. The result? Too many students have to choose between avoiding college altogether or taking on overwhelming amounts of debt to pay for a degree.
We applaud state policymakers who are working to identify ways to rein in college costs. The United States needs more college-educated workers, and we won’t have them unless we make college more affordable. But we have to make sure that the solutions we put into place don’t work against students and taxpayers by inflating college costs even more, especially for the families who can least afford them.
Because Pay It Forward proposes to tax graduates’ income at a certain rate every year (say 4 percent) for up to 25 years, graduates will end up paying very different amounts for their education — often more than what that education actually cost. An analysis from the Oregon Center for Public Policy estimates that an average student could overpay more than $7,000 under Pay It Forward. Worse, the neediest students — those currently receiving federal or state financial aid — could be hit the hardest, potentially paying thousands more over their lifetimes than they would have under the current system.
Let’s not forget, either, that Pay It Forward only addresses tuition, which makes up just part of total college costs; room and board, books and supplies, and miscellaneous fees aren’t covered. At the University of Oregon, for example, those additional fees amount to almost 60 percent of a student’s total costs. Of the $23,370 total estimated cost of a year at Oregon for a resident of the state, about $9,300 is consumed by tuition. Under Pay It Forward, the average student would have to cover the remaining $14,000 out of pocket or through loans, creating a double whammy for students: They’d have to pay off student loan debt in addition to having their income taxed to "pay it forward."
Some of these concerns could be addressed in any final package. Our biggest concern with Pay It Forward, though, is that it doesn’t address the root issue: rapidly escalating college costs. By positioning higher education less as a public good than as an individual transaction, Pay It Forward absolves both state policymakers and institutional leaders of any responsibility for doing what it takes to slow the rapid increases in the cost of a college education.
Instead of demanding cost-consciousness among college presidents and an ongoing commitment from states to maintain or increase higher education funding, Pay It Forward simply puts a big Band-Aid over the current trend of state disinvestment and the transfer of financial burden from the state to students and their families. Ironically, although trying to ensure progressively that each graduating class opens the door for ones to follow, Pay It Forward could actually just open the door to more privatization of public education.
States should develop innovative solutions to the rising cost of college, but they should be transparent about them. If they’re going to sell students on debt-free college, they should offer debt-free college. Loan debt simply repackaged as delayed tuition payments may be a catchy sales pitch, but it’s a bad bargain for students.
Kati Haycock is president of the Education Trust, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization.
In higher education policy, you and Secretary Arne Duncan have consistently focused on two goals of critical national importance: 1) Expanding access to higher education and degree completion rates, especially by low-income, minority, and first-generation students, to increase the number of Americans who enter the work force with 21st-century skills; and 2) Making college more affordable to more people. As president of the major service organization for more than 600 private, nonprofit colleges and universities, I want to assure you that the leaders of these institutions share your goals — and have a track record of achieving them.
This truth is often obscured by myths about America’s private colleges — that they cater only to an elite, that they are not affordable, that debt levels for graduates are excessive, that liberal arts degrees are not viable in the workplace. Each of these myths is demonstrably false.
Mr. President, I am confident that your own experience of higher education — as an undergraduate, law student, and faculty member at independent colleges — leads you to understand the engine of opportunity and social mobility that these colleges provide to students and the resource pool of innovation that they provide for our nation. In fact, the effectiveness of this sector of higher education — in providing access, affordability, timely graduation, and employable skills — could provide models for the most valuable use of scarce tax dollars.
Let me first address the question of affordability, which looms so large in today's constrained economy. In private, nonprofit colleges and universities today, students on average pay about half the full cost of their education. The stereotype is entirely false that private colleges enroll students who are much wealthier than those at public universities. In fact — counterintuitively — there is a higher proportion of low-income students at nondoctoral private colleges and universities than at public research universities.
First-generation college-goers account for one-third of all enrolled students, and low-income students account for about 30 percent of all students in private colleges. Moreover, private scholarship funds total six times the amount of federal funds awarded to students — effectively leveraging the value of tax dollars for higher education. Extremely significant as well is the issue of opportunity costs; students of all backgrounds are more likely to graduate on time at private colleges, further reducing the total cost of their education.
In considering the affordability of a college education, much has been made recently about student debt. The fact is that most students have manageable debt and they repay their loans. What is "manageable debt"? The median debt for a four-year degree at a private college or university is $22,380 — about the same as a moderately priced car (and in fact not much more than the median debt at a public university). But the college degree appreciates, while the car depreciates. Estimates for the differential in lifetime earnings for a college degree vs. high school diploma are $700,000–$1,000,000, which is not a bad return on investment.
Recently, the $1 trillion in total student debt has been trumpeted as a "scare quote" in headlines. Not noted is the fact that this large number is a direct result of increased numbers of enrolled students, especially those with modest financial resources — itself an indication of progress in fulfilling Great Society objectives even during a weak economy. Our country has, quite remarkably, increased the number of college-goers — from fewer than half of all high school graduates 50 years ago to almost two-thirds today. This achievement is a result of the commitment by many over two generations — the federal government’s repeated willingness to increase Pell Grants, state governments’ expansion of the number of places at state universities (each heavily subsidized by taxpayers), and private colleges’ aggressive fund-raising for scholarships from nongovernmental sources to keep college affordable. All Americans can take pride in this example of shared responsibility.
This is decidedly not a picture of college costs "out of control" or, as you phrased it recently at Knox College, "an undisciplined system where costs just keep on going up and up and up." That speech referenced tuition increases of up to 7 percent. Perhaps this applies to a few universities. But private colleges, surveyed last year, increased tuition by only 4 percent on average and the trend has been downward. In fact, in recent years the net cost to students at private, nonprofit colleges has declined when adjusted for inflation.
It's also the case that most of the large percentage increases in tuition at state universities are direct results of cuts in state government funding. In addition, nearly every college and university in the country has recently taken measures to cut costs, such as eliminating staff and faculty positions, restricting pay increases, and delaying maintenance and construction projects.
Mr. President, on numerous occasions you and Secretary Duncan have encouraged colleges and universities to use technology to achieve cost savings in instruction. I am certain you recognize that more than two-thirds of colleges are already active in efforts to blend online with face-to-face learning. But an entirely online education, while better than no education, does not provide a student with the same learning outcomes and lifelong advantages as a live education on a campus with frequent interaction among students and between students and full-time professors.
It’s this distinctively American form of education — with room for questioning, discussion, creativity, interpersonal dynamics, and supportive faculty — that has made American colleges and universities the envy of the world and widely imitated.
Impartial research literature overwhelmingly shows that students at traditional institutions learn more, finish their degrees faster, and exhibit more postgraduate success in such aspects of life as civic participation. The reputation for innovation and educational quality — enjoyed by both America’s research universities and our small colleges — is well-deserved. Our national goal, therefore, should be to make the best form of American education — face to face — available and affordable for as many people as possible, to use blended approaches carefully, and not to make a less effective form — online only — the norm for everyone except a fortunate few. Indeed, such a prospect of a two-tiered system (to put it crudely: personal instruction for the few, online instruction for many) would pose serious threats to our democracy.
In the same week that you spoke at Knox College, Forbes magazine issued its survey of "top performing" colleges, and shortly thereafter Georgetown University’s Anthony Carnevale released an analysis of the affordability of college and the low percentages of low-income students at many “selective” universities. Curiously, both analyses chose to focus on only the "best" institutions but defined the group of selective institutions broadly. If the goal of such studies is to increase college participation among low-income students, it is odd to examine the effectiveness of only a fraction of America’s 4,000 colleges and universities. Forbes’s analysis starts with 650 of what it considers the best-performing institutions, and Carnevale’s begins with 468. (Most observers would argue that only about 100 colleges and universities are truly selective — that is, able to assemble a freshman class from an overabundance of well-qualified applicants, giving weight to virtually any factor of merit or need it chooses, and most able to meet every dollar of financial need.)
While there are few surprises near the top of Forbes’s list, more interesting details can be found farther down the list because they offer hints for the design of public policies. First, the top 217 colleges (or one-third of the 650) include every kind of college and university — large and small, public and private. Second, among the 117 colleges just below the top 100 are 40 smaller, private colleges that are not well-known beyond their regions. These colleges are market-sensitive, have room to expand, spend large amounts of their own resources as financial aid in order to enroll many low-income and first-generation students, and graduate students quickly. The vast majority of their graduates remain in-state.
While the top 100 colleges enroll 17 percent of their students from low-income backgrounds, smaller, private, nondoctoral colleges and universities, despite smaller endowments and less selective admissions, enroll approximately one-third of their students from low-income backgrounds. Most impressive is that the numbers of graduates of small, private colleges who enter careers in high-priority fields such as STEM are proportionally much higher (although small in absolute numbers) than the percentage who start their studies in these fields at many larger universities. In short, even within the second 100 of the “top” 650 institutions, the patterns of institutional performance differ from the myth of higher education’s unresponsiveness to your objectives. A great deal more could be achieved by harnessing the commitment of all 4,000 colleges and universities.
Your twin national policy goals of access and affordability could be advanced most rapidly if private colleges and universities, especially those at the middle levels of selectivity, were given a larger role. Their track records point to educational practices that could easily be brought to a larger scale. Their demonstrated cost-effectiveness as agents of upward mobility argues for reinforcement by public policy. In the difficult budget choices that lie ahead, these institutions offer the most value in the use of scarce tax dollars. To ignore the dedication of traditional institutions, both public and private, to your goals and the resulting benefits to the country would be to forego a major opportunity.
Richard Ekman is president of the Council of Independent Colleges.
The annual amount families spent on college leveled off at about $21,000 after several years of decline, according to Sallie Mae survey, which finds families -- particularly high-income ones -- taking steps to limit their expenditures.
Jill (not her real name) has been a student in two of my classes and has a 4.0 grade point average. She writes for the campus newspaper, serves on the executive board of our university’s professional journalists organization and works a full-time job. With her exemplary writing and class attendance, she is easily one of the shining stars of our department.
She also comes to me at least once a semester for a cathartic cry.
Jill’s world comes crashing down on her often. Sometimes the pressure and time constraints get to her. Other times, there is an issue at home or with roommates.
But the underlying cause of her stress is an issue she tries to ignore in everything she does: Her parents think college is a waste of time.
Jill’s issues at home and all the time constraints that put pressure on her academics and her social life stem from the fact that she pays her own way through school, with only a small amount of help from student loans and scholarships.
Sometimes she will ask me or whichever professor or adviser she is confiding in that day the question that many of us are scared to ask ourselves: Is it worth it?
There are tons of self-made success stories of billionaires abandoning their college educations in the pursuit of grander things, a la Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg. Their stories float around social media, distributed via Facebook memes, chain-letter emails, and Wikipedia entries, and they provide fodder for parents and teenagers who would rather not spend money on or fund four-plus years in a classroom when they could be out making a living and getting started with their occupations now.
And why wouldn’t they?
Jill’s story is like those of so many of my other students who work themselves into exhaustion just to be here in school. For me, their circumstances raise two important questions: As a professor and club adviser, how can I work around these students’ extenuating circumstances in a way that is sympathetic yet firm, and how can I convince these students that college is worth their while?
I often have students come in with late assignments or club members who have fallen short on fulfilling their obligations to the group. They need more time or more help or they just drop the class or club completely. The most common excuse: I had to work.
My gut reaction is to be sympathetic to these students. I know how difficult it is to maintain a job, or in some cases many jobs, to support oneself in school -- I was in the same boat when I was there. At work, students have little control over their schedules or the demands put upon them. The bottom line is simple: You don’t show up, you don’t get paid and you get fired.
But in their academic lives, students become their own boss for the first time in their lives. Suddenly, there is no parent or boss or teacher breathing down their neck, leaning on them to go to class, do their homework, or attend that meeting.
When an exhausted, newly autonomous 18-22-year-old has to make the choice between work and school commitments, the scale is hardly balanced. On one end, there is the job they cannot afford to lose, and on the other, there is the education or organization that looks good on the resume, but produces few immediate tangible effects. After coming home late at night following a full day of work and classes and meetings, that paper due tomorrow might just have to wait.
The party line for most professors when dealing with this situation is this: School needs to be each student’s top priority. But is that really always fair to assume?
The challenge becomes weeding out which students are in Jill’s position from the barrage of excuses from those who are just being lazy. Often times, the difference is obvious. Students like Jill, who genuinely want to be here and are working hard for the privilege, rarely offer excuses.
Sure, I’m aware of Jill’s circumstances and the circumstances of others in her position, but she has never once failed to take responsibility for any lapses in work or effort. These students are here because they recognize the value of education, and they treat it with the same seriousness they do their jobs.
Still, things come up, and I am faced with a choice, too. Do I punish these students with poor grades or boot them from the organization they have let slip to the back burner, or do I find some way to keep them above water and feeling involved?
The easy choice, of course, would be to tell students like Jill that I can’t make exceptions for them because then I would have to make exceptions for everybody. Having to rearrange my schedule, my rules, and my expectations puts more pressure on me, and in this job, who needs it?
But I didn’t become a teacher so that I could be a taskmaster or a tough boss. It’s students like these that need and want our guidance the most, so I try my best to give it to them.
First, I try to work with the student, finding out if there are alternative times or locations to meet or making myself more accessible in case there is something I can do to help him or her understand the assignment better and complete it on time.
When other students complain or can’t understand accommodations given in unique circumstances, I use it as a teachable moment, reminding them that they will come across situations in the working world that they don’t understand, and everyone’s circumstances are not identical to their own. Sometimes as a manager, I say, you have to be flexible and do what is best for each team member to make the operation run smoothly.
Yet, when dealing with students like Jill, I find such accommodations are rarely necessary. Most of the time, all she needs is a little guidance, an open ear, and someone with authority to tell her she made the right decision.
Which brings me to my next big question: How can I convince students like these that college is worth their while?
Tuition costs are skyrocketing throughout the country, and more students are accruing eye-popping amounts of student loan debt each year, which means they will graduate and start their careers in a financial ditch. Programs have been cut to save money, and class caps at many universities have risen to generate more revenue from more students. Many colleges with an eye on the bottom line have increased the number of online classes they offer, in hopes of reaching more students in more distant locales.
There is an easy answer to give students who question the value of a college degree: Most career-track jobs nowadays require them. A high school graduate is not likely to compete with a college graduate for a teaching job or a marketing job. But there are still plenty of vocational careers and office jobs with decent salaries and potential for upward growth to give pause to students and parents who are not sold on the idea of college.
If Jill’s parents were sitting in front of you, challenging you to defend their daughter’s decision to put herself through college rather than going straight into the work force, what would you say?
When I graduated from college with my degree in journalism, I went to work in a small newsroom feeling prepared. I felt poised, brave, and ready to take on whatever challenges were presented to me.
I was a fool.
My journalism degree did not prepare me for every eventuality I would come across in my reporting career. What it did is give me the basic skills and knowledge I needed to secure the job and the ability to learn something new every day. I owe my success to brilliant professors who gave me the footing I needed to succeed and taught me to absorb education not just in the classroom but also throughout my life.
A fool without my background would have taken one look at her new job and run. This fool stayed, knowing I had the tools I needed to learn and grow. And I never looked back.
The opportunities for growth that came my way stemmed largely from professors who knew my abilities and pushed me to flourish. Yes, I learned the ins and outs of writing news stories while sitting in a classroom, but the real takeaway was the belief that I had the ability to fly above a Category 5 hurricane, knock on accused murderers’ doors, and grill disgraced politicians – all of which I did as a young reporter. When it got scary or it felt like too much, I remembered the lessons I learned at my alma mater, and, occasionally, I even contacted my professors for help, and I managed to carry on.
While in college, I was given the fantastic opportunity to fail. I botched articles, mixed up facts, missed deadlines, and, more than likely, offended sources more than once. Had I done any one of those things in my professional career, I likely would have been looking for another job. As it turns out, my college education was like juggling knives while wearing body armor, allowing me to fail without total destruction.
Furthermore, I never would have been a reporter had I not had the opportunity to dip my toe in other waters. I began college as an archaeology major. (Upon realizing archaeology is a science, I quickly turned and ran.)
I toiled with notions of becoming a theater worker, a “communication specialist” (whatever that is), and a public relations practitioner all before one wonderful journalism professor noted my work and talked some sense into me. Had it not been for college, I might still be looking for my passion and spending and losing a lot of money in the process.
As Jill walked across the stage at graduation last spring, I saw a confident, hardworking young women eager to begin her professional life and sure to be a success. I only hope her parents saw it, too.
Jennifer Brannock Cox is an assistant professor of communication arts at Salisbury University.
Loyola University New Orleans becomes the second selective college this summer to announce a major enrollment and budget shortfall. Is it a harbinger of things to come, or just a case of bad enrollment strategy?