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

By Laura McKenna

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.

THE L-WORD

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.

STAYING ON TIME

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.

The University of Texas at Austin has instituted various reforms to increase their four-year graduation rate, which may indirectly lead to lower student loan burdens. They have flat rate tuitions to encourage students to take a full course load. Students can monitor their progress through an online program. They provide four-year degree plans, which enable students to do better long term planning.

LOST YEARS, LOST CREDITS

Lisa's lengthy stay in college and her subsequent debt is the result of changing majors and transferring colleges multiple times.

She began her college education at Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island where she earned an Associates degree in fashion after two years. After deciding that fashion wasn't the right career choice for herself, she transferred to Rhode Island College and began a degree in Elementary Education with a specialty in Special Education. She stayed at Rhode Island College for 1-1/2 years, and then moved home to New Jersey to save money. She transferred to William Paterson University. William Paterson would not accept most of her credits from her previous two colleges. She finished three semesters of college, and she needs at least five more semesters of classes in order to graduate.

Huber said that accepting credits from other schools is a problem, especially when the classes come from an out-of-state college, because credit hours and class expectations vary so widely. Reforms have been made to enable transfers between in-state schools easier, but transfers between out-of-state schools continue to be a problem. Faculty members have little control over these matters.

FUTURE PLANS

In some cases, faculty advisors address student loan debt when it pertains to future career choices. Nobody wants to see kids like Lisa make drastic career changes, which leads to extra time in school.

At Swarthmore College, freshmen must write an essay that aligns their educational plans with their future career goals. Students struggle with this project, which requires long-term thinking. Few eighteen-year olds can imagine life beyond the next dorm party on Friday night. Burke believes that this essay is a useful exercise to force kids to think about their educational choices.

Other advisors tell their students not to attend terminal masters programs that do not have an obvious professional benefit. Unger speaks with students about the costs of law programs and encourages students to do the math. Both Burke and Unger told students not to attend PhD programs that do not provide generous stipends. In a few cases, they have dissuaded students from attending graduate school altogether.

RECOMMENDATIONS

College debt is not spread out equally among all students. It is concentrated in certain colleges, such as the for-profit schools. It is also concentrated in certain populations. Kids without top SAT scores, which open doors to well funded colleges, those without financial resources from home, or those who families lack higher education experience are particularly vulnerable. These students are in dire need of advice.

Jordan Weissmann recently showed how the biggest student loan default rate came from the for-profit sector. He said that we need alternatives for the type of student who attends the University of Phoenix, including low-tuition community colleges or true vocational training programs in high schools.

I also believe that untraditional students need more guidance about making higher education decisions. Faculty advisors and administrators do provide some guidance to kids like Lisa about finances -- sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. A few schools have genuinely innovative reforms that should be replicated. However, students need more help than individual faculty can provide.

Students need administrators, high school counselors, or outside groups to provide them with a cocktail of career, education, and finance advice. They need to understand the penalties that are involved with transferring schools and changing majors. They should meet with the financial aid office, understand the totality of their loans, and know whether or not interest is accruing. Decisions about majors, careers, and universities should be undertaken with care.

It is not clear what can be done about students who do foolish things like extend their college loans to get access to football tickets, or students who are too immature to think about life beyond the next frat party. Some students will not listen to good advice, even if it is readily available.

Colleges should provide more thorough, regular, and comprehensive help for students. Though we can't force students to make responsible decisions and other reforms are certainly needed, greater guidance for students is a necessity.

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This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/10/the-secret-weapon-in-the-fight-against-bad-student-debt-its-our-professors/263371/