The Secret Weapon in the Fight Against Bad Student Debt? It's Our Professors

It might sound crazy to say that instructors could help solve our college loan crisis. But by focusing students on a cost-effective course of study and on-time graduation, they could make a big difference.

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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.

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At most schools, students are required to meet with an assigned faculty member every year. Faculty help students choose their majors, take the required courses in the correct sequence, and plan for the future. This is the primary interaction that students have with grown-ups during their college years. In very large, research-oriented colleges, an administrator may take on this role.

Faculty said they could do little to help students manage their finances. Nevertheless, student loans were addressed indirectly during their meetings. Several schools had instituted reforms that could be scaled up. And it was also clear that students, particularly untraditional students at non-elite schools, needed more help than advisors were able to provide.


With the tremendous amount of media and political attention focused on the national student debt burden, you would think that loans would be an omnipresent discussion between faculty and students. Surprisingly, faculty said that they rarely discuss money matters during their annual meetings.

Faculty did not encourage a discussion of loans, because they did not feel qualified to talk about financial decisions. They said that their training was in anthropology or biology, not financial management.

Mike Unger, a political science professor at Ramapo College, said, "Faculty are not trained financial advisors. I can't provide specifics. We know very little about our students' finances. Hopefully, there are people on campus who do that."

Others say that information about finances is highly personal, and that conversations like this could easily cross professional lines.

Timothy Burke, a history professor at Swarthmore College, said, "The faculty are leery about getting into the underpinnings about a student's finances once they get here. It gets into the social class situation of the student. The student could get offended. If it doesn't offend them, then you can get saddled with a sense of responsibility. Your heart gets broken, but there isn't much you can do about it. You get entangled in the life of the student. For the most part, the faculty does not want to know how the sausage gets made."

Burke added that student loan debt wasn't a pressing issue at his school, because the school had enough resources to subsidize tuition for needy students.

Faculty advisors also said that student loan information is not directly addressed during office hours, because the students themselves rarely bring it up. Many students are not aware of their debt load and are not thinking about life after college. One administrator told me that loans were "not on their radar."

My discussion with our tutor, Lisa, confirmed that observation. She could not tell me exactly how much she currently owed. She did not know whether her loans were accruing interest while she was in school. She said that she never initiated a discussion about finances with her advisors.


Faculty said that they helped students manage their loan debt indirectly by encouraging them to graduate on time. Students who spend less time in school should rack up fewer loans and have more time in the workforce to repay their debts.

Jo Anne Huber, an administrator in charge of undergraduate advisement at the University of Texas at Austin, said that improving the four-year graduate rate is a priority at her school. Only 50 percent of students there finish in four years, which has contributed to an over-crowding problem.

Huber said that students take too long to graduate for a variety reasons. Some students work outside of school, which makes it difficult for them to take a full course load every semester. Other students major in multiple subjects, which they believe will give them an edge in a competitive job market. Huber discouraged this practice. She also said that students sometimes made poor choices, like choosing to spend an extra semester at college in order to enjoy another season of football.

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Laura McKenna is a former political science professor who writes regularly at Apt. 11D.

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