When Colleges Hurt Kids

This year has been a fantastic year for SLA college acceptances. We’ve seen our kids get into some of the most well-respected schools in record numbers – and many of our kids are the first SLA-ers to ever get accepted into these schools.

Whether or not they are able to go to is another question.

Today, I was sitting with one of our SLA seniors. She’s gotten into a wonderful college – her top choice. The school costs $54,000 / yr. Her mother makes less than the federal deep poverty level. She only received the Federal financial aid package with no aid from the school, which means that, should she go to this school, she would graduate with approximately $200,000 of debt.

She would graduate with approximately $200,000 of debt – for a bachelor’s degree.

Now, how in good conscience could a college do that? I’ve sat with kids as they’ve opened the emails from their top choice schools. Watching the excitement of getting into a dream school is one of the real joys of being a principal. It’s just the best feeling to see a student have that moment where a goal is reached.

And as amazing as that moment is… that’s how horrible it is to sit with a student when they get the financial aid package and counsel them that the just isn’t worth that much debt.

I sat with my student today and pulled up a student loan calculator. I showed her that $200,000 of debt would mean payments of $1500 / month until she was 52 years old – and then we pulled up a budgeting tool so she saw how much she would have to make just to be able to barely get by.

Then we looked at the state schools she’s gotten into, and we talked about what it would mean to be $60,000 in debt after four years, because PA has had so much cut from higher education that Penn State is now $27,000 / year — in state, and we’ve noticed that their financial aid packages have dropped by quite a bit.

So we have to tell the kids to apply to the private schools because the aid packages the kids get from private colleges are sometimes significantly better than what the public schools are offering.  Kids have to apply to a wide range of schools and hope. And then we sit down with kids and help them make sane choices, as the $60K / year schools send amazing brochures and promises of semesters abroad and pictures of brand new multi-million dollar campuses, all while promising that there are plenty of ways to finance their tuition.

Dear colleges – you are doing this wrong.

It doesn’t have to this way. When I was a teacher in NYC even as recently as ten years ago, I felt that kids could go to amazing and affordable CUNY and SUNY schools if the private schools didn’t give the aid the kids needed. But Pennsylvania ranks 47th out of 50 in higher ed spending by state, and as a result, seven of the top fourteen state colleges are in Pennsylvania.

And as private colleges hit times of financial crisis and public colleges become more tuition dependent, students are being asked to take out more and more loans, which is putting a generation of working class and middle class students tens — if not hundreds — of thousands of dollars in debt to start their adult lives.

And the thing is — I still powerfully agree with those who say that a college education is a worthwhile investment. And on the aggregate, it is true – especially because the union manufacturing jobs of the last century have been lost. But when we look at the individual child, and the choices that kids and families are being asked to make, we have to ask how we can ask kids to take that kind of risk and take on that kind of debt.

And of course, all of this is exacerbated for kids from economically challenged families and for kids who are the first in their families to go to college. And if you are thinking about leaving a comment about kids getting jobs in college to help make it affordable, you show me the job market for college kids to make $30,000 / yr while in school full-time. I must have missed those listings in the morning paper.

A college education can — and should — be a pathway to the middle class.

Colleges should have a moral responsibility to offer sane packages that don’t saddle students with unimaginable debt to start their adult lives.

Work hard, go to college, live a meaningful life. That is what we hear promised to children all the time from President Obama to parents across America.

Colleges and universities have to be honest and fair agents in that dream. Asking students to take out $30,000 and $40,000 of debt a year for access to that dream is a betrayal of the educational values so many of us hold dear.

21 thoughts on “When Colleges Hurt Kids

  1. This is such a heartbreaker! I hope there are college administrators out there who are listening ( or maybe even more important are the PA politicians.

  2. It is sad indeed… With 3 adult kids I’ve been there. I am a single Mom and have one child with a huge debt, one who choose Westpoint and loves his career but it carries its own debt and then there is my third child…

    I learned a lot and listened closely to my older two…
    We found a top rate JC with a great transfer rate and professors shared with a local big name university ( for example the astronomy class was taught by working scientists who taught the exact same class at the big name University..).

    She now has two AAs and two BAs and went to a great university with significantly less debt

    I know it’s not the answer …but when the system is broken…. We need to find the best path… So rather than app smashing we did college smashing

  3. This is sad and it’s not going to change any time soon, but I have a question. Should the discussion about the cost of school, loans, and what that all means take place BEFORE the kids pick out their “dream school?” Why even consider a college if the cost is unreasonable. I makes zero sense for kids to come of our school with a huge debt that will take them decades to pay back. Why not encourage kids who need to, to attend a CC or small school the first 2 years at a very reduced cost and then transfer to a “better” school where they will get their degree from? Economically, that could be a great plan.

    I realize this is easy for me to say and that this idea reduces the entire college experience that I think is almost as valuable as the actual classroom education.. My daughter will be looking at schools in a couple of years and will have decisions to make. I worry about what the cost will be and whether or not we can help a little or a lot or whether she’s going to have to work her way through college. Her situation is different than many other students and her choice of “affordable” schools might be a little wider than some other kids, but the fact remains that school is very expensive and in most cases, too expensive.

    The cost of many schools across the country is out of control. Perhaps the more articles that are written about the cost and the student debt crisis will cause some change. For many students, however, the change won’t come fast enough or won’t be big enough.

    Good luck to all the SLA kids choosing schools and other high schoolers in a similar situation.

    • Chad – a big part of it is that it’s hard to have any clue what schools will offer the best packages. Oftentimes the private school with a $55K / yr price tag will have a lower real cost than the state school that costs $25K / year. We tell every student that they have to apply to two “safety” schools – one academic safety and one financial safety. That definitely can look like Community College for some kids, but that shouldn’t be the only option. And it’s a very interesting question of privilege when upper-middle class kids with a 3.2 GPA can go to the bucolic private college like a Skidmore and kids of poverty with the 3.8 GPA – which often also translates to kids of color – are told to go to Community College for two years.

      As state college tuition becomes unaffordable and private college grants dry up, we run a powerful risk of college affordability becoming one more way that we reinforce power and privilege in this country.

      • That makes a lot of sense – and something I’ll probably get a better handle on in the next few years when my daughter starts looking. It sure seems like your school community is doing the best to help prepare the students with a variety of options, which is fantastic and probably not being done enough for high school students.

        I’ll be keeping an eye on this issue from a big picture sense to see how it all plays out. You’re right, though, in the potential risk of what’s happening as it relates to reinforce privilege and power.

  4. The kids will have to go to community colleges for two years, living at home and then to a university. Sad as it is we keep electing politicians that are not acting in our interests but those of corporations and banks. When will voters wake up? We are fast moving to a society like Mexico where only the elite rich can go to university and everyone else is dirt poor. We have very little middle class left. Republicans have pitted us against each other with social issues like abortion and gun rights all the while taking taxes from the poor disproportionally and giving loopholes to the rich, while most corporations pay nothing. They don’t care if most Americans can’t afford college. It makes it easier to have them in wage slave jobs where they won’t learn to think or they’ll be in such debt making them docile to employers for fear they will lose their jobs.

  5. In Oregon where I work, funding for higher education used to be about 70% funded by the state and 30% funded by student tuition. In about the last decade, those numbers have switched places. One of our administrators recently said we are no longer a “public university,” but more like a “publicly assisted university.” There seems to be a national trend to reduce state budgets by slashing funding to higher education and shifting the financial burden to students. The battle in Arizona is the latest example. We need to find ways to get people to once again value education and prevent students from bearing the brunt of the financial burden. If we don’t, I believe we will become a more stratified society.

    Thank you for looking at the real cost of a university education with students. Have you ever suggested to students that they contact the financial aid offices of specific universities and let the office know they can’t attend based on the current financial package? I’ve seen that work on occasion and packages were adjusted.

  6. I agree with everything you have said. The other option is for kids to go out of state. WVU has more Pennsylvania kids than nearly West Virginia kids because even with out of state tuition they are still cheaper. It is hard to be away from home but it is another option. It’s a shame when kids are hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt for an education and the bonuses of Wall Street are generally in the millions.

  7. Thank you for this compelling post. I can’t help but think about all of the efforts and resources being poured into getting more young people to complete the FAFSA so that they become eligible for financial aid, the kinds of excessive loan amounts that you describe. Maybe the most important thing isn’t to get kids to complete FAFSA forms, but to focus on defraying the cost of higher education and/or to explore a variety of other post-secondary pathways that enable students->alumni to flourish as adults without having to incur such financial burdens. It’s striking to me that your post was published on the same day as this one – “Ready For The World: Redefining Success In The Age Of Change” – http://gettingsmart.com/2015/03/ready-for-the-world-redefining-success-in-the-age-of-change/

  8. Pathway to the middle class? What middle class? The government has killed or is killing the middle class. I know this doesn’t answer or address any of the article but sometimes the truth hurts.

  9. Pingback: Colleges, how in good conscience can you do this to kids? - The Hechinger Report

  10. Chris,

    I have to challenge you on two fronts:

    1) You should stop using terms like “dream school” – especially around your students. This whole notion that students internalize some corporation’s brand (that’s what universities are, corporations) into their own identity is sick. This way of conditioning kids to consume higher ed exacerbates the overall dysfunction and inequity of education consumption.

    2) You can solve this whole problem by creating a high school with outcomes that actually allow kids to think, function in society and become economically self-sufficient. There are plenty of meritocratic 21st century careers that don’t require college credentials to which you could be building pipelines of talent. I’m tired of high schools just punting and expecting kids to figure out their lives in college. The reason kids are forced to go to college is because the k-12 system fails them. Until k-12 school leaders take responsibility for the 13 years that they waste of kids’ lives, I think it’s disingenuous for them to complain about the limited options kids have post high school graduation.

    • Art… I’m o.k. with the idea that kids fall in love with a school. I did. I stepped foot on the campus I went to and knew I was going there. I got lucky. I got in, and I had parents who – with a fair amount of sacrifice – had the ability to send me there. We work hard to have students apply to many different schools and to look for their joy in all of their places. But we’re human, we like some places more than others. That’s o.k.

      And to the second point – I feel pretty comfortable that we’ve done something very special at SLA. That doesn’t change the economics of needing a college degree. All the Peter Thiel wishing in the world won’t make that so.

  11. Chris, Many colleges are ridiculously expensive, maybe even overpriced. And super elite schools with multi-billion endowments ought not to benefit from tax exemptions unless they meet some kind of condition of service to the greater community.

    The NY Times hyper-ventilated over this issue last Spring. Led with the sad tale of a kid who finished school $120k in the hole.


    But in the 8th ‘graph of their story they noted “For all borrowers, the average debt in 2011 was $23,300, with 10 percent owing more than $54,000 and 3 percent more than $100,000, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports.”

    Maybe these data have moved a but in the last 3 years but I suspect not that much.

    Again, this doesn’t deny the inequity of the specific case of your student with the $54k choice, but I suspect if an articulate, passionate school leader advocated for the child (as I know you do) that number would come down. happy to shame the college in public if you think that would help.

    But more broadly, it seems parents and kids are figuring this one out without taking on too much debt. Despite the rampant stupidity and hyperbole from college marketing departments..

    • Matt – you’d be surprised how little a call from a principal matters. I’ve tried. Over and over again.

      And yes, I think most families are choosing not to go the “ridiculous debt” route. I’d like to see those numbers broken down by income level of the families. And I know what I’ve seen – in PA, where we rank 47th out of 50 in spending on higher ed – the amount of “the gap” is getting larger and larger with each year.

      And all of that still begs the question that I ask – why should a college accept a student whose family makes less than $20K a year and then say that the family contribution is over $45K a year? Why should colleges even be allowed to do that? How can they argue that it is ethic to do so?

  12. Chris, thanks for this post.

    I recently met one of your SLA students (Omar) who was playing in an ASAP chess tournament, and he was sharing his post-high school plans. He was actually considering taking a gap year and looking at alternative entrepreneurial or post secondary experiences. I encouraged him to check out this super competitive fellowship that provides young people up to $100,000 in two years to start a project and make some big things happen in the world. Here is the link; http://www.thielfellowship.org/about/about-the-fellowship/

    I also encouraged him to consider City Year. He could gain some important life experience, and they put aside some money for college, plus you get a Free Monthly Tranpass, and some cool City Year Gear and Timberlands (smile) http://www.cityyear.org/philadelphia.

    I give Omar lots of credit for thinking proactively about life after high school. Maybe SLA can take some of the credit for his forward thinking 🙂