It's hard for me to believe that I graduated from high school nearly 26 years ago. I was only 17 when I enrolled in Eastern Michigan University (I turned 18 in October of my freshman year) in 1984. It's even harder for me to believe that I earned my bachelor's degree without burying myself in debt.
Looking back on it all, it was highly improbable that I would attend college; it was even more improbable that I would go on to earn a Ph.D. eleven years later. The odds, it seemed were stacked against me. First of all, I grew up in a welfare-dependent household. Second, neither my mother nor my father had earned a high school diploma. And last, even though two of my siblings had attended college, neither had successfully completed their degree.
That I enrolled in college was pure luck. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't a terrible student, but, at the same time, I wasn't a great student either. And although my parents had not attended college, they stressed that all their kids get an education. At the same time, I hadn't harbored a lifelong dream to become, for example, a university professor. As a matter of fact, I had no idea what it took to become a professor; I had never even heard of a Ph.D. Outside of school, I had no consistent exposure to college educated people. As far as I knew, doctors were physicians. Aside from medical doctors, I knew a little bit about a few other professions, including lawyers, social workers, and, of course, preachers. But, I had no idea what it took to become any of these.
Like many high school seniors, I didn't have a clue about what to do after graduation. In the middle of my senior year, I walked into the career service office desperately looking for help. I needed help; and I needed it quickly. As I sat there, talking for the first time with anyone seriously about life after high school, I remember staring at brochures for the army and thinking to myself, "no way." After retrieving a copy of my high school transcripts for the counselor, she quickly asked me why I hadn't thought about attending college.
The counselor handed me a stack of applications. I rushed home to fill them out. Sitting alone at the kitchen table, one of the first things I noticed was that most of them required an application fee. Several of the schools had a fee as high as $40 dollars. I knew that there was no way that my mother could afford such a cost and did not bother to ask her. I applied to two schools; they were the only ones in the stack that did not require an application fee.
It was one of the most exciting days in my life when I received letters of acceptance from the two schools that I applied to. The first letter of acceptance came from Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black university in Charlotte, North Carolina. A short time later, a letter from Eastern Michigan University came in the mail. After my mother and I talked it over, we decided that EMU was the best choice. The next question I faced was how to pay tuition and room and board.
After contacting EMU about my decision, the admission counselor advised me to fill out the application for federal financial aid. Since my family was poor, I was eligible for full assistance. However, there was a problem; because I had applied so late for financial aid, I was ineligible for a full Pell Grant and needed to take out a loan for $2,500 to help pay for my first year of college. Fortunately, I borrowed that year the bulk of the money that I needed to borrow over the next three years to finance my education. Largely through a combination of Pell Grants, work study jobs, and some borrowing – Perkins and Stafford loans, but not a lot – I was able to fund my undergraduate education.
Things have changed a lot since I started college. According to the College Board's Trends in Student Aid study, "too many students are borrowing more than they are likely able to manage." Based on an analysis of data from 2007-08, the researchers found that about one out of every four students graduated with at least $24,600 in debt, and one out of every ten students graduated with at least $39,300.
The authors point is not that every student is borrowing too much; rather, the challenge many students face finding good paying jobs and their overall lack of understanding about the financial impact of loans, means that many of them are taking on too much debt to manage.
Given the lower socioeconomic standing of blacks in American society, it may come as no surprise that the College Board finds that black students are far more likely than Asians, whites, and Hispanics students to graduate from college with high debt. Only 19 percent of black students graduated with no debt. By comparison, the percentage of debt-free Hispanic (33 percent) and Asian (40 percent) graduates was much higher. Roughly one in four black students completed college with at least $30,500 in student-loan debt, compared to debt levels ranging from 9 percent to 16 percent for other groups.
With more low-income students of color than ever attending college, the debt problem will only grow worse. For these students, financing an education with manageable debt like I did is practically impossible to do. Too much debt can contribute to future financial insecurity.
What can be done? The recent passage of The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which was included in the health care reconciliation bill that passed earlier this year, was an important first step. But much more needs to be done to increase Pell Grants and access to other forms of need-based aid (more grants, not more loans).
More also needs to be done to improve the financial literacy of admitted students and their families. But, a big challenge is that many universities are more interested in enrolling students – especially private and for-profit universities – than giving them and their family sound financial advice. As a recent NY Times article points out, in spite of having knowledge of the financial aid system and knowledge of the student and their families' financial situation, most universities feel no real obligation to counsel some of their students about the financial grave they are digging for themselves.
A potential reason this is so is because tuition-driven universities do not want to suffer the likely consequence of encouraging students – particularly middle-income students – to go elsewhere. Unless the university is able to persuade more wealthy students to attend, it runs the risk of having to attract financially needy students to reach enrollment goals. This is a huge problem for many private universities.
According to the results of a recent survey by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, private universities are spending more than ever on student financial aid. The authors of the survey contend that the tuition-discount rate – the difference between what students actually pay to attend and what it actually cost to attend the university without financial support – which now stands at roughly 42 percent, is exacting a heavy toll on many private universities. Many institutions have "had to implement salary freezes, hiring freezes, staff reductions, and other cost-cutting measures in order to increase their spending on institutional grants."
For the foreseeable future, loans will continue to play a key role in providing access and increasing affordability for low and moderate-income students. More than ever, students need access to low-cost loans to supplement grants and scholarships. The Perkins Loan program helped me fund my education. Created in 1958, Perkins provides low-interest loans to financially needy students. Unfortunately, Perkins is set to expire in 2012. President Obama has proposed overhauling and expanding the program. Congress needs to act now, both renewing the program and giving it an infusion of money to keep providing aid at needed levels.
Whenever I talk to my students about the value of an education, I remind them that it is the great equalizer in our society. It has been the main tool used by millions of Americans – particularly people of color – to achieve social mobility. Realizing the growing importance of a college degree to achieve middle-class status, more students than ever, are pursuing a postsecondary education. At the same time, students are drowning in debt to finance their education because colleges, even public ones, are not as affordable as they use to be. Making college affordable once again needs to be a national priority.