It was only a generation ago that higher education was still seen as a public good, an institution that needed to be in strong financial shape because the work inside its walls was essential to America’s growth. Financially healthy colleges were expected to provide affordable educational opportunities for men and women from all walks of life.
Today, higher education is viewed as something that must be paid for, and going into debt in order to attain a degree is taken for granted. In a warped way, the student loan has become a kind-of badge of honor, an indication students are betting on themselves to make sufficient income in the future to pay off that loan.
And as the amount (and we’re not talking interest) grows as their time in school goes by, well, that’s the literal price they have to pay now that college is considered something other than a public good. Sadly, for too many college-aged students, the debt load becomes too much.
I’m reminded of my own experience as I write this. Nearly 35 years ago, I completed my freshman year at the University of Southern California with a roughly 3.5 GPA. I was excited for what was to come, a still awkward and naive 18-year-old who believed in the system and thought my good grades would come with a financial award.
And then my financial aid offer came in. For the academic year to come, it included yet another loan I was expected to take out in order to meet my financial obligations to the university I had wanted to attend since I was about 8 years old.
Suffice to say, I was disappointed. And angry. And frightened.
With the offer in hand, I drove to campus, marched into the finance office and basically said “no.” Shaking, I explained it was impossible to believe my academic success in my first year warranted another loan. The one I already had? Sure. But two? There had to be another scholarship somewhere, some grant somewhere, that would replace that loan.
“If there isn’t, I can’t come back,” I said. Later, my mom told me how brave she thought I’d been to be so bold in articulating what I needed.
Two weeks later, and having already determined to which school I would transfer, I received an answer: That second loan was gone, and a scholarship had replaced it. Don’t ask me about the corresponding details; I can’t remember them. But I do remember that scholarship remained in my financial aid package when I was a junior and a senior.
I also remember clearly thinking what might have been if either I’d refused to speak up or if my request (demand?) had been turned down.
Granted, I was attending a private university, and suffice to say I wasn’t a spoiled child. I was the antithesis of the stereotype of the USC student back then: I wasn’t rich; I didn’t have a cool car; I needed to work; and my clothes weren’t brand name. In retrospect, I admit my heart overruled my head when it came to selecting the college I’d attend; little did I realize I’d be repaying a student loan for over a decade.
But I digress.
Today, only the most upper crust of American society can pay for a college education without encumbering a loan. And that means there’s something fundamentally wrong with the system.
The evidence is everywhere: College graduates earn more money over their lifetime and have a better overall quality of life than their adult counterparts who didn’t graduate from college. Yet, governors and legislatures in all 50 states have bought into the poisonous idea that says “if you want that degree, go into debt to get it.” My experiences with family friends whose children attend colleges all over the country suggest the response I received in the summer of 1986 isn’t the one students receive today, regardless of whether they attend a public or private institution.
Leaders in all 50 states have compounded their poor choice of cutting funding and devalued further the entire higher education enterprise by looking the other way as tuition prices have soared and as more and more undergraduate classes have been taught by low-paid, overworked adjuncts.
Before I’m accused of disliking adjuncts (I remind you that I’m married to one), allow me to explain: Cutting state funding opened the door for grants to become valued options to make up some of those missing dollars. Research became as important, if not more, than teaching; faculty awarded six- or seven-figure grants thus spent less time in the classroom. But classes still had to be taught. Instead of hiring tenure-tracked positions, cash-strapped university leaders opted for adjuncts, who teach a course for a flat fee (and less than a tenured faculty member would make) and do so without benefits.
Three recent phenomena have put this entire modus operandi in a perilous situation: the economic collapse of 2008, a subsequent decline in births, and coronavirus.
Overly simplified, 2008 saw the crippling of university endowments and spending; the subsequent decline in births means we’re at the leading edge of a multi-year reality that fewer students are in high school and fewer still will go to college; and the economic impact of coronavirus has again crushed the bottom line.
View it this way: Imagine you had $1 in 2008. The financial catastrophe that year left you with 75 cents. You made up some of the difference over time and began 2020 with roughly 80 cents, knowing there’d be smaller freshmen classes for most of the decade. The economic realities of coronavirus has left you with around 55 cents. Oh, and you can’t touch your trust fund (aka, the endowment) because large portions of those dollars are earmarked for specific purposes.
There are a host of ways to address the financial red ink: selling unused or underused buildings and mothballing other such facilities, hiring freezes, salary freezes, pay cuts, staff cuts, benefits cuts, financial aid cuts, sports cuts, faculty cuts and program cuts. None of them is good. Eliminating sports teams, staff, faculty and academic programs will generate the biggest headlines, and those headlines won’t look good. Trimming financial aid means the student body might be forced to…you got it…take on or increase a loan.
Why exactly are you a university president or chancellor? Certainly not to carry around a hatchet and carve up the history of your institution. But in the late spring and summer of 2020, you have no choice.
Many of you reading this post are wondering why I didn’t put “eliminate administrative positions” on the list. Simple: as one college after another has had to be run more like a corporation because of the neglect from their state houses, administrators don’t come cheap. The cost of doing business today is such that highly-paid top administrators are essential on the college campus. As legendary CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite would have told us: “And that’s the way it is.” (Full disclosure: I’m a department head, which puts me at the lower rung of the administrative food chain; however, I’m on the food chain, so you decide if that role clouds my judgment in this case.)
So, here we are on this unofficial first day of summer, the day we remember those men and women who wore the military uniform and lost their lives while doing so. Our college has fewer dollars than it did just 12 years ago (and I could have gone back further if I had wanted); our states’ governors are about to slash funding for higher education again; fewer college-aged students are on the horizon; unemployment might reach 20% before the summer is over; a deadly virus might again force us to teach off campus again in the fall; expensive testing will be required if we are on campus so that we can have reasonable assurance we won’t get sick; some of our colleagues are being laid off; some colleges and universities have closed for good, and more soon will.
Meanwhile, there are 18-year-olds killing it in the classroom who soon will receive grim news: They’re about to be told to borrow more money in order to complete that academic degree essential to their future. They won’t be able to afford it.
What will they do?